a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Gates Of Dawn Author: Fergus Hume * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800511h.html Language: English Date first posted: June 2018 Most recent update: June 2018 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
Chapter 1. - The Pleasures of the Road
Chapter 2. - Palmistry
Chapter 3. - Tithonus
Chapter 4. - The Peacock in Jackdaw’s Feathers
Chapter 5. - Tinker Tim
Chapter 6. - The First Letter to a London Friend
Chapter 7. - Diana of Farbis
Chapter 8. - The Recluse
Chapter 9. - Village Gossip
Chapter 10. - Parson Jarner
Chapter 11. - Farbis Court
Chapter 12. - The Portrait in the Gallery
Chapter 13. - Under the Greenwood Tree
Chapter 14. - Dan’s Secret
Chapter 15. - Retrospection
Chapter 16. - Afternoon Tea
Chapter 17. - The Second Letter to a London Friend
Chapter 18. - An Elizabethan Ancestor
Chapter 19. - The Pale Ladye
Chapter 20. - In the Oak Parlour
Chapter 21. - The Days pass by
Chapter 22. - A Dreamer of Dreams
Chapter 23. - Parson Jarner is astonished
Chapter 24. - A Woman scorned
Chapter 25. - Jealousy
Chapter 26. - Cupid in Arcady
Chapter 27. - The Third Letter to a London Friend
Chapter 28. - Fire and Flame
Chapter 29. - The Gipsy’s Prophecy
Chapter 30. - The Final Letter to a London Friend.
The caravan rolled slowly along the dusty road with creakings and groanings and jingling of horse-bells. It was painted a dark-green colour, with white-curtained windows picked out in rose pink, and bright red shafts and wheels. The corrugated iron roof showed no signs of exposure to wind, rain, or sun, while the brasswork on door and harness glittered like fine gold. Evidently it was quite new, and this was its first journey into rural England. The sleek black animal that drew the gaily tinted structure picked his steps leisurely; his driver strolled alongside with sauntering step and whistling lip. A complacent fox-terrier followed at his master’s heels with an observant eye for stray rabbits. Man, and horse, and dog, and house on wheels looked fitter for play than for work. There was something exasperating in their idle looks and lazy meanderings. A holiday company in holiday humour.
It was very pleasant creeping across the broad heath in the twilight. Overhead, the sky, a dome of opal tints, showed here and there a twinkling star; underfoot, the grass, dry with summer heat, revealed moorland flowers. Between heaven and earth blew cool winds laden with many odours. In vague immensity the plain spread on every side towards the luminous horizon, and the caravan with its attendant life was but a speck on its vast bosom. Bird and beast and insect had retired to rest, and over all this large empty world brooded a dead silence. It was less like a moor in crowded England than a trackless wilderness in some unexplored country.
For over an hour man and animals pursued their way. With their backs to the sunset, they pressed steadily onward, as if in search of some unseen goal. Then the fox-terrier grew weary, and jumped up on the doorstep behind, where he whimpered angrily for his victuals. His master merely laughed at such doggish impatience, and kept a keen look-out for the sign whereby to determine his halting-place for the night. Shortly a mighty ridge topped by stunted pines heaved up like a wave on the plain. The horse stopped at a signal from his driver.
“It cannot be far off now,” murmured the latter; “there are the pines, but I don’t see the tall one.”
Here the road curved to the right, and round this the horse plodded of his own accord. The change of position brought into sight a many-branched pine, which showed proudly above its fellows. When he saw the tree loom black against the clear sky, the owner of the caravan gave a nod of satisfaction as at an expected sight, and looked thoughtfully from road to heath. His meditation only lasted two minutes.
“I must go cross country,” said he, and guided the horse on to the yielding turf.
The vehicle swung and swayed and dipped and rose on the uneven ground, but by leading the horse carefully an upset was avoided. In a quarter of an hour the man and his belongings halted at the foot of the ridge immediately below the tall pine. A dull murmur like the buzzing of bees became audible, and the man stilled the impatient yapping of the dog to listen.
Hardly had the last word left his lips, when an old woman—ugly as the witch of Endor—with red coif and scarlet cloak, hobbled out of the wood and planted herself deliberately before him. Her brown face, peaked eyes, and sharply cut features would have proclaimed her Romany, even without her fantastic garments and dazzling gold coins. From ears and neck and wrists depended strings of sequins, which jingled musically as she shivered in the keen air and stared at the new-comer. He beheld a withered gipsy hag, she a splendidly handsome young man. In her feminine eyes he was well worth looking at. Brown velveteen coat and knickerbockers, grey cloth shirt with blue neckerchief, cloth cap, gaiters, and heavy boots. There you have his dress—that of a gamekeeper. Yet the wearer would not have escaped the guillotine in the Reign of Terror. Aristocrat was writ largely on face and bearing. His six feet of stalwart manhood showed the influence of athletic training; his masterful mien, and the imperious look of his grey eyes, firm lips, and wide nostrils, betrayed the class to which he belonged. A glance revealed that this dominating nature was derived from long generations of men accustomed to command. His attempt to pass as a man of the people was a dismal failure. A step, a word, a gesture, proclaimed his breeding, and showed him superior to his surroundings. With the astuteness of her race, the gipsy saw the stamp of birth in this shabbily dressed vagrant, and framed her speech accordingly.
“Cross my hand with gold, my fair-faced lord, and let the poor gipsy tell your fortune.”
The man addressed smoothed his moustache, and looked down with a quiet smile at the red-cloaked dame. He reflected before making answer, and even when he opened his mouth gave her but little satisfaction.
“With you, no doubt, every one to be wheedled is a lord.”
“Trust a Romany to trick a Gorgio,” said she, with a flicker of mirth in her glazed eye; “but truth will out at times. You are a gentleman, rye.”
He glanced at the vehicle behind him, at his rough clothes and heavy boots, and dismissed her speech with a contemptuous shrug of the shoulders.
“A gentleman! A lord! And tramping the country tinker-fashion! Your eyes are not sharp, mother.”
“Glib tongue! Steady eye. A rare lie, my dearie; but Mother Jericho ain’t no fool. Can an eagle hide in goose-feathers? No! nor can you hide gentle birth in rough clothes.”
“I am having greatness thrust upon me,” he answered smiling. “You are quite wrong, mother. Some rags of gentility, some scraps of learning, I may have picked up; but I am neither lord nor gentleman. My name is Dan, and I set up for being a cheap-jack.”
“Can you patter, rye?”
“Can I what?” asked he, unable to understand her speech.
“He! he!” mocked Mother Jericho. “A fine cheap-jack, truly! Why, he doesn’t even know the lingo of the road! No, no, my dearie; I’m too fly to be taken in. Give me your hand and I’ll tell your fortune. Then you can go.”
Dan was rather annoyed at this speech, which convicted him of being an impostor, and turning away, led his horse past Mother Jericho. She followed, screaming alternate blessings and cursings on his indifference, but neither had the effect of making him pause. Seeing it was useless to gain anything from such imperturbability, the old woman marched off in the opposite direction with a farewell shake of her fist. When the flare of her red cloak was no longer visible, Dan laughed quietly, and patted the fox-terrier.
“Gipsies about, hey, Peter! We must keep a good watch to-night, or we may wake to find ourselves robbed of everything. Here is a chance for you to distinguish yourself, lad.”
Peter leaped up and whimpered as to assure Dan that he would do his best; and once more set in motion, the caravan moved up the incline between solemn files of pine trees. A pathway cut through the wood led upward in gentle gradations, so that there was little difficulty in making the ascent. It was now growing dark, and Dan pushed on rapidly so as to reach his camping-place under the tall pine before it became impossible to see his way.
At length the caravan arrived almost at the summit of the ridge, when the road suddenly trended downward to the right and descended into a small dell. This, hollowed in a rough semicircle, was immediately below the tall pine, and being sheltered from the keen sea winds by trees and rocky walls, made a very comfortable camping-place. The limited area at the bottom bore marks of former wayfarers in the shape of wheel-ruts, black ashes of ancient fires, and downtrodden grass. With a nod of satisfaction, the individual who called himself Dan, and asserted so strenuously that he was not a gentleman, halted his horse and began to busy himself in preparations for his camp. He seemed to know his business as pioneer and wanderer. The horse, who answered to the unusual equine name of Simon, was unharnessed and turned loose to feed on the plentiful grass which carpeted the bottom of the dell. Dan rubbed him down in a most scientific manner, and then departed with bucket and lantern to seek for water. Peter was left on guard, and as a strong friendship existed between him and Simon, they bore the absence of their master with less impatience than might have been expected.
Nothing is so clearly defined as the pathway to a spring, for the first act of all wayfarers is to search for water. Other paths may be grass-grown and untrodden, but the way to the spring is always well worn and plainly indicated. With the eye of a practical traveller, Dan selected the most beaten path and followed its track, confident that he would be able to fill his bucket where it ended. His expectations proved correct, for a well of good water under the shadow of a rock soon flashed in the rays of his lantern. Under the pines it was as dark as midnight, and had not Dan been careful to lighten his steps ahead, he would have pitched head foremost into the well. Had this happened, Simon and Peter would have waited his return in vain. As it was, they welcomed him back with neigh and bark. After filling the tea-kettle, Dan placed the bucket before Simon, who buried his nose therein with a grateful snort; nor did he lift his head till the water was gone. His thirst thus satisfied, he betook himself again to his grazing, and Dan, having been merciful to his beast, found time to be merciful to himself. Peter took a deep interest in the movements of his master. When the fire was lighted, he barked at the crackling of the wood, and snapped fiercely at the flying sparks. As Peter danced round it, the fire roared boisterously and lighted the rocky walls and solemn pines with gleams of red flame. There is nothing more cheerful than a fire, and even Dan, who had hitherto been silent, felt its influence, for he broke into a merry song while getting out the food. To the vagrant, where he lights his fire is home, and Dan, broiling rashers of bacon over the friendly flame, felt that he was in his own parlour.
Assisted by Peter, whose mouth watered at the smell and sight of victuals, Dan made ready a plentiful meal. He was a most accomplished cook, and carried with him a store of comestibles which it is certain are unknown in gipsydom. Does your Romany know of pâte de foie gras, or of Italian salami; or does he even guess at the existence of olives, or of caviare? All these toothsome morsels had this luxurious young man in his caravan, thereby giving the lie to his pretence of vagrancy. He was, without doubt, some outcast from civilization who regretted the flesh-pots of Egypt. He loved the life, but not the coarse fare, of the road, and was, so to speak, only playing at being a gipsy. Thoreau would have scorned so half-hearted a disciple, nor would Obermann have relished the company of so patent a sybarite.
Yet on this special occasion Dan devoured none of his delicacies, but contented himself with dry bread, broiled bacon, and capital tea. With an appetite sharpened by keen air and long walks, he performed Homeric feats in the way of eating. For Peter a mutton-bone was provided, and he too proved a valiant trencher-dog—if such a term be allowable. There have been worse meals than that enjoyed by those two in the lonely dell, and when Dan finished his bacon and Peter his bone, both were thoroughly content.
Supper despatched, Dan repaired to the spring for a second bucket of water, while Peter remained selfishly curled up beside the fire. Even when his master returned he took little notice of what was going on, feeling no interest in proceedings unconnected with his appetite.
Dan gave Simon another drink, patted his neck and saw that his halter was safe, then went into the caravan. Thence he emerged with a fur rug, and spreading this beside the fire, he stretched himself thereon with a contented sigh.
And now came in the “sweet o’ the night,” for Dan pulled out and charged a well-seasoned briar. This was the crowning joy of the day, and Dan envied neither king nor kaiser as he luxuriated in the Indian weed. Simon cropped the sweet grass near at hand; Peter, filled to repletion, snored with wakeful eye in the warmest place; and Dan smoked and read. And what think you he read, but Borrow’s glorious “Lavengro?”—the most fitted book for such a gipsy, for such a situation. By the red firelight he read for the hundredth time that ever-new story of the Dingle, of Isopel, and of lovemaking in the Armenian tongue. What magic courtship! “Robinson Crusoe” for boys, but “Lavengro” for men—the more especially for those who incline to gipsydom, and find life flavourless save when on road or heath, under hedge or beside a camp-fire. For such Borrow’s books have the authority of Scripture.
In Birrel’s happy phrase, Dan was “a born Borrovian.” His face was alive with pleasure as he conned the magic page, nor did he fail to compare the situation of Lavengro with his own.
“This might well pass for the Dingle,” said he, letting the book fall. “I am certainly Lavengro in real life; but, alas! where is my Isopel? And did I find her, would it be possible to teach her lovemaking in the Armenian tongue? I am ignorant of such recondite matters; therefore it were best that no Isopel, with ready fist and sharp tongue, invade my privacy. Yet I would not mind meeting with the Flaming Tinman.” Here he looked at his mighty arm. “I would do my best to thrash him. But woe is me! there is no Borrow to chant my victory.”
Such a speech, akin to blank verse, was doubtless inspired by Borrovian periods; but who ever heard a gipsy soliloquize thus, or saw one peruse the chronicle of that modern Ulysses? Dan asserted that he was no gentleman, yet in looks, in words, breeding would out, and Mother Jericho was as clever as the rest of her sex in detecting a palpable fraud. Yet what did this soi-disant vagrant in the pinewood dell reading “Lavengro” by a camp-fire? Ah, that is a long story, and cannot be told at present.
Simon cropped, Peter snored, and Dan was immersed in the account of that Homeric fight between Lavengro and the Flaming Tinman. So profoundly was he interested, that he heard not the approach of stealthy footsteps. But Peter was on the alert, and sprang into the darkness with angry yelp. Roused by the signal of danger, Dan arose to his feet and stood on the defensive, for one meets with adventures in England as in Timbuctoo.
“Who is there?” he demanded, striding to the edge of the circle cast by the firelight.
“He! he! my dearie, call off the dog. May he burn, spark of the evil one!”
“Mother Jericho! Here, Peter!”
“Yes, it is I, dearie. Bless you, rye, I knew you’d camp here.”
The scarlet cloak emerged into the firelight, and Dan beheld his gipsy friend uglier than ever in the flickering light. She shook her stick at Peter, who responded with furious tongue; whereat Dan caught him up in his arms and choked him into silence. Mother Jericho, interpreting this as a sign of welcome, hobbled near the fire and seated herself in a comfortable corner. In no wise resentful of her company—for even with “Lavengro” he found the dell a trifle lonely—Dan threw himself down in his old place and waited to hear what his visitor had to say.
Evidently determined to act as a good comrade, Mother Jericho produced a dirty pipe and clawed the air in the direction of Dan’s tobacco-pouch. He tossed it towards her, and, while she filled pipe and pocket, produced from the caravan a bottle of whisky. Filling a glass with this desirable drink, he looked interrogatively at the old woman.
“Hot or cold water?” said he, deeming the undiluted spirit too strong for so aged a person.
“Neat, dearie, neat! It’s good for me in that way. I git on’y too much water on rainy nights.”
Having finished the whisky (a speedily performed operation) she lighted her pipe, and, puffing vigorously, leered at her host out of the smoke like an ugly cherub. He thought of Lavengro’s companion in the same situation, and groaned.
“What a substitute for Isopel!” he muttered disgustedly.
“Hey!” croaked Mother Jericho, arching a skinny hand behind her ear. “Speak up, rye; I’m deaf.”
“What are you doing so late in this wood?” said Dan, not choosing to repeat his remark, which, indeed, would have been Greek to the old hag. “Where are your people?”
“Near at hand, my dearie, near at hand. I came to see you here afore going to bed.”
“I hope none of them will follow your example, mother. I don’t want to be robbed.”
“You won’t be, rye! Burn me if you lose so much as a stick. They are my people,” said Mother Jericho, confidentially; “and I told them not to come near you, dearie.”
“That’s very kind of you,” said Dan, somewhat astonished at the protection thus accorded. “And may I ask why you have tabooed me in this way?”
“Hey! Tabooed! What’s that?”
“It’s Polynesian for protection.”
“Polly what? I don’t know no Pollys,” said Mother Jericho, crossly. “I’ve come to read your hand and tell your fortune.”
“I don’t believe in such rubbish.”
“You will afore you leave Farbis.”
“Will I, indeed? And where is Farbis?”
“Over this ridge by the sea. Can’t you hear the waves roaring? You allays hear ‘em on still nights, dearie. Give me your hand, my brave rye.”
“I don’t want my hand read,” said Dan, unwillingly. “If it’s money you want, here is a half-crown.”
Mother Jericho clawed the coin into her pocket with a mumbled exclamation of delight; then, before he could withdraw his hand, seized it and held it towards the red flame, palm upward. Half frowning, half laughing, Dan let her scan the lines, which she followed with the point of a skinny finger.
“There are partings and meetings,” said the sibyl. “You have come on a weary journey, and seek a pearl. What you seek you shall find, but beware of gold and silver hair.”
“What do you mean? What jargon is this?”
“Two women shall love you, rye, and the one you hate shall seek your hand; she will aim her arrows at your heart.”
“At my heart?”
“She will seek to do you evil through one whom you shall love. Here are fire and flame, and furious cries and brave deeds. A false father, a false mother, and joy coming up through the Gates of Dawn.”
Not understanding a word of her meaning, he pulled his hand roughly away. The old woman broke into a peal of derisive laughter, and sucked at her pipe in silence. In the red glow of the fire she looked like some evil creature of the night. Dan resented her presence and prophecies, and spoke angrily.
“Why do you come here to tell me this nonsense?” he said, leaning forward. “I am not a superstitious fool, though, you take me for one. I don’t love one woman, let alone two.”
“You will love afore you leave Farbis, dearie.”
“Indeed!” said he contemptuously. “Perhaps I will marry also!”
“Ay. But there is much to be done afore then.”
Deeming it useless to argue against such obstinacy, Dan relapsed into silence and smoked his pipe. Yet, in spite of his apparent disbelief, he had an uneasy consciousness that the sibyl had read his mind and purpose clearer than he cared to think. He was a reticent young man, and hated to hear his private affairs discussed. But it was strange that this midnight hag should speak so truly. Dan was puzzled and displeased.
“Have you ever seen me before?” he asked, after a meditative pause.
“No, dearie, I never set eyes on you. I only read what Fate has written on your hand. It’s print to me, dearie.”
“I tell you I don’t believe in palmistry.”
“You will some day, rye.”
“If I fall in love and marry before I leave Farbis, I may,” he responded ironically; “but as that is not likely to happen, I am afraid your black art will not gain a disciple.”
Mother Jericho took no notice of this sceptical speech, but rapping the ashes out of her pipe, stowed it carefully away in the folds of her dress.
“I must go now, dearie,” she said, rising stiffly to her feet; “but when I see ye to-morrow the spell will be on you. Ay, ay, laugh as you please, but Joy comes up for you through the Gates of Dawn!”
“What Gates of Dawn?”
“You’ll see to-morrow, rye! And at noon you will find a guest by your fire.”
“Not I, dearie. But some one who wishes you well. Good night, my brave rye. I put the spell on you.” Here she waved her stick like a malignant fairy. “Go you at daybreak to the sea and meet your fate at the Gates of Dawn.”
After the delivery of this mystic speech, she vanished as by magic into the darkness of the night. Dan looked into the gloom, somewhat bewildered by her sudden departure, which smacked of the broomstick, then returned to his book with a shrug of his broad shoulders. But Borrow failed to charm his preoccupied brain, and after one or two unsuccessful attempts to fix his attention on the page, he desisted with an impatient exclamation.
“That old lady is a trifle weak in the head, I fear,” said he, yawning. “What does she mean by her ‘joy coming up through the Gates of Dawn?’ Does she take me for a new Tithonus on the watch for Aurora? Yet it is strange that she knows of my desire,” he added reflectively; “I thought no one knew of that but myself. Ah, bah! Every young man wishes to love, to marry. Her necromancy is all guesswork.”
Thus contemptuously dismissing the subject, he smoked a final pipe and made his preparations for retiring to rest. The night was so fine that he could not bring himself to sleep in the stuffy caravan, and finally decided to take his rest in the open air. After a drink of whisky to keep out the dews, he wrapped himself in the fur rug, and lay comfortably by the fire. Peter curled himself into a ball, and kept one eye on his master, the other on Simon. The wind wuddered through the pine trees overhead, but in the deep of the dell all was still and warm. The red flames leaped skyward to the stars until the fire died to grey ashes, and, save sigh of wind and roar of sea, no sound was heard. Lying on his back, Dan, oblivious to all outward things, went to the land of dreams, and there met Joy coming up through the Gates of Dawn. Mother Jericho’s spell was acting bravely.
Should the stay-at-home happen to sleep under a strange roof, on one of his rare journeys, bewilderment and pain attend the hour of his waking. With sleep-bemused brain he eyes the unfamiliar room, and it is some considerable time before he can grasp the situation. The alien appearance of wall-paper and furniture, the different position of bed and door, come on his mind with a sense of pain. Like the little old woman of the nursery rhyme, he says, “This is not I,” and it is difficult for him to arrive at an immediate conclusion as to personality and locality. The strangeness of the situation dazes his homely wits.
Not so with your traveller. Whether he opens his eyes in palace or hovel, under roof or sky, he is in the instant fully aware of his position. Accustomed to a constant change of scene, his wits are always on the alert for new sights. If he went to sleep in France and woke in Yokohama, he would cease to be astonished before finishing his waking yawn. There is no sense of pain in his waking, but rather a pleasant novelty, which renews itself with every stage of the journey. Your cosmopolitan is the most adaptable of creatures.
Dan was one of these enviable beings, and woke in the early morning with a due knowledge of his position. He rubbed his eyes and yawned and stretched himself, moved about briskly to restore the circulation of his blood, and made up the fire. A few embers were still red-hot, so he had no difficulty in fanning them into a blaze under an armful of dry sticks. The sun had not yet risen, and the air, notwithstanding that it was July, struck raw and cold. A pearly light pierced through the sombre boughs overhead, and already the pine wood echoed with the chirrup and twittering of waking birds. Peter went off on his own account in chase of an inquisitive rabbit, and Dan, after seeing to Simon, brewed himself a cup of strong tea, which enabled him to endure more comfortably the chill winds of morning.
In spite of the heavy dew on herb and grass, Dan’s clothes were quite dry, as he had taken the precaution to wrap himself tightly in his fur rug. But, having slept in his clothes all night, he felt uncomfortable—another proof of his sybaritism—and decided to have a bath before breakfast. Also he thought it advisable that Simon should have a splash in the water, and so made ready to go down to the beach.
“We don’t know where the sea is,” said he to Peter, who had returned without catching his rabbit, “but we’ll go on an exploring expedition.”
Peter whimpered, and hinted at breakfast before starting.
“No, Peter,” said Dan, gravely, putting a bridle on Simon; “a swim first, and breakfast to follow.” Whereat Peter sat disconsolately on his haunches and shivered. He did not care for a swim, and, indeed, detested water with all his heart.
Dan had no saddle, but, being a good rider, did not mind its absence. The bridle was sufficient to guide Simon, and Dan, having obtained a rough towel, jumped without difficulty on the bare back of his steed. Followed by Peter, who, knowing what was before him, came unwillingly, he rode up the path leading from the dell. Yet, mindful of the proximity of Mother Jericho’s tribe, he took the precaution to lock up his caravan before leaving. Dan was too old and wary a traveller to trust to the taboo of the gipsy queen. Some member of the tribe less bound by authority than his fellows might break the unwritten law.
There was a chilly feeling in the air, and so strongly with the resinous odour of the pines blended the tang of salt sea-breezes, that Dan scented the ocean long before Simon climbed the ridge. There was an upward path, and this Dan followed, in the hope that it would lead him to the sea. It wound deviously among the pine trees, and at length emerged into a small clearing, whence Dan had a splendid view of Farbis and the sea. He halted Simon so as to take in the features of the place. It was well worth the ten minutes’ examination he gave it.
Immediately below lay a large hollow almost in the shape of a circle, which curved towards the sea and there opened out into a narrow passage. Without doubt, at some remote epoch the ocean had roared through the gap and filled the hollow with salt waters, but the upheaval of the land had cut off the waves, and now the dry cup was filled with trees and houses.
The sides were clothed with pines, which climbed up to the top and straggled off in patches on to the barren moorland. From where Dan was stationed he could see the moors stretching on either side purple with heather, then the sudden dip of the land into the hollow, the giant rocks guarding its entrance, and beyond, the line of ocean sharply defined against the red sky of dawn. In the smokeless atmosphere all the features of the scene stood out with photographic distinctness.
The “village, a cluster of houses with one street, lay in the lowest part of the hollow. Among the pine trees, to the right, Dan saw a large house of weather-stained red brick, which he guessed was Farbis Court. From the clearing a path wound down to the village, and Dan descended thereby. To reach the sea he would have to pass through Farbis, and out by the gap where the giant rocks stood sentinel. All this, seen under the rosy tints of coming day, was very beautiful, and Dan gazed at it in silent admiration.
“Queer little place,” he thought, as Simon jogged downward; “quite out of the track of civilization. A speck in these wide moorlands. What can the inhabitants do to keep themselves supplied with the necessaries of life? They can’t live entirely on fish! I never saw so lonely a place. It must have been established by some hermit.”
With cautious steps Simon descended the pathway, which was in anything but good repair. The edging of rough stone had fallen in parts, and here the rain had washed away huge gaps, perilous to the unwary foot. Dan found it impossible to guide the horse down a pathway as beset with snares as the Bridge of Mirza, so he wisely trusted to Simon’s instinct. The animal justified the confidence placed in him, and landed his rider at the bottom without any mishap. He received a kind pat on the neck for such cleverness, a piece of attention of which he seemed appreciative.
Dan felt a curious sensation, as though he had been let down into a pit. On three sides of him rose the steep banks, covered with pines and shrubs and sappy grass. In front, an untended road led past some scattered houses into the village. Peter ran ahead as herald, and, with the sharp sea-breeze blowing in his face, Dan pushed forward.
Down the street clattered Simon, with the terrier barking before. To doors and windows came drowsy men and women, newly wakened from sleep. A few untidy children and slatternly females were in the street itself, and stared open-mouthed at the unaccustomed sight. Dan might have been the Wild Horseman himself, so profound was the sensation caused by his progress through that tumble-down village. Evidently strangers were rare in Farbis.
A more poverty-stricken place it is impossible to conceive. The cottages were badly thatched, the windows in many cases broken and mended with rags, and there were puddles in front of the doors. In a wide space towards the end of the village Dan came on the two principal buildings. To the right, an ivy-clad church with square Norman tower, set in a waste-looking graveyard; to the left, a flourishing-looking public-house, “The Red Deer,” with benches outside. It could easily be seen, from the appearance of this latter place, what made Farbis so wretched. The women were all remarkably ugly, and particularly careless about their dress. Dan, who had a keen eye for a pretty face, shuddered at the Gorgons he beheld, and trembled to think of Mother Jericho’s prophecy.
“If I am to meet my fate here,” he murmured, “I sincerely hope it will not be through a temporary aberration of mind. It would be bad enough for one of these creatures to fall in love with me; but to think of two—great heavens, it’s too awful to contemplate!”
He urged Simon to a clumsy trot in order to escape the ugly female population, and speedily left the village behind. The road now began to rise towards the two great cliffs which sentinelled the gap, and Dan could hear the roar of the sea; could smell the salt odour of the wave. Up the road he went, and at the entrance to the gap beheld a splendid sight.
Directly in front of him was a narrow slit between the great rocks, and through this he saw the ocean. It faced due east, and the sky flamed crimson like a funeral pile. The ruddy light poured in rich profusion through the chasm and bathed him in hues of blood. A native, with open mouth, was climbing the road after him, and Dan, hearing his heavy footstep, looked round.
“What do you call this?” he asked sharply.
“T’ Geates o’ Dawn,” replied the native, and stared harder than ever.
“And Joy comes up through the Gates of Dawn,” murmured Dan, as the gipsy’s words flashed again into his mind. “How strange! Here are the ‘Gates of Dawn,’ but where is the embodied Joy? Hark! Some one is singing from the sea. A mermaid!”
“Noa, measter,” said the yokel, grinning from ear to ear at this extravagant idea; “‘tis t’ ould doctor’s lass.”
Over the rim of ocean leaped the sun, and shafts of dazzling gold streamed through the Gates of Dawn. The sea turned to fire, and the fierce radiance smote the red firmament to glowing gold. Such splendid glitter and flame poured through the chasm that Dan put his hand to his eyes to keep himself from being blinded. It is ill work to face the sun-god in his anger.
“Apollo is fiercer than Aurora,” said Dan, blinking his eyes. “I would rather be Tithonus than Daphne. I wonder she did not share the fate of Semele and expire in the glorious divinity of her lover.”
“T’ doctor’s lass,” again said the yokel, nodding up the road.
Down it, in the full splendour of the sunlight, came a girl singing. Dan could distinguish the words as they floated skyward on the music of her voice. And she sang—
“The red light flames in the eastern skies,
The dew lies heavy on lea and lawn,
Grief with her anguish, of midnight flies,
And Joy comes up thro’ the Gates of Dawn.”
Such a vision of ripe beauty! This was surely no mortal maiden who danced down the road, but Aurora heralding the approach of the sun-god. Dan almost expected to see her scatter tufts of rosy cloud, and gaped like a yokel himself at the lovely woman who was coming towards him.
Evidently she had been bathing, for her dark hair, still wet with the salt sea, streamed in profusion down her back. In a long blue cloak, with naked feet, she danced along, singing. Her face was beautiful—so much only could Dan gather as she flashed past him like a meteor. The presence of a stranger did not seem to rouse her curiosity, for she did not even turn her head to look at him, but, singing and dancing, went down the road towards the village. That splendid vision of immortal beauty lasted but two minutes.
“T’ doctor’s lass,” explained the yokel for the third time.
“By Phoebus, no!” cried Dan, kicking Simon’s sleek sides; “it is no mortal, but a goddess—an angel—a vision of the sunrise. My fate—pshaw!—my divinity! The face that launched a thousand ships! The golden Hebe—incarnate beauty—everlasting Joy!”
With a laugh at his mythological folly, he dashed down the road, leaving the bucolic individual staring with all his might. When Rusticus shut his mouth, the stranger on his black horse was sweeping like the wind across the broad sands, shouting out a single line. The yokel heard it, and wondered.
“And Joy comes up thro’ the Gates of Dawn.”
The inhabitant of Farbis went back to his breakfast with the opinion that the stranger was either mad or the devil.
It is hard to say what made Dan so excited. Usually he was a self-contained young man, who but seldom gave vent to his high spirits. On this morning, however, he was fairly carried away by the exuberance of his animal nature. He urged Simon to a gallop along the shining sands, and shouted out any poetry that came into his head. There was nobody to listen to him save a gull or so, therefore he indulged himself to the full in such nonsense. “Dulce est desipere in loco,” and why not?
Whether it was the brisk air, the roaring waves, or the sight of that beautiful face, he could not tell, but there was no doubt he was nature-mad, and pranced Simon about till the steady old roadster wondered what could be the matter with his usually sedate master. Peter enjoyed the excitement, and barked till he was hoarse. He was more in sympathy with such moods than Simon.
The beach was a goodly length of sand, and at the end there was a cluster of rocks which afforded privacy. Not a soul was in sight, for, with the exception of “t’ doctor’s lass,” none of the Farbis folk patronized the seashore at so early an hour. Dan tied up Simon, and behind the rocks stripped off his clothes. These he left Peter to guard, jumped, naked as he was, on horseback, and went off to frolic in the water. Here was primevalism with a vengeance. It is hard to say whether Dan or Simon most enjoyed the bath. They both splashed about in the waves till the blood sang in their veins. Some distance out Dan slipped off and ducked under and rolled over till he was tired. He could not go far enough out to swim, as he had to hold Simon by the reins. At length man and beast emerged thoroughly refreshed.
Having donned his clothes, Dan once more made a racecourse of the beach, and finally trotted campward through the Gates of Dawn. Alas! no beauty awaited him this time. The sun was fairly up, and Aurora’s services not being needed, she had disappeared. On his way through the village Dan had quite a crowd to look at him; but they only grinned, and did not volunteer a remark. At the Red Deer he drew rein for a tankard of ale. The landlord, stout and cheerful (as landlords should be), himself brought the frothing pot, and spoke so respectfully that Dan again felt that he was found out. What is the use of wearing shabby clothes and driving a caravan, and camping gipsy-fashion in a dell, if people will persistently say “sir” and touch their hat—or forelock, if uncovered? Dan remonstrated.
“Why do you call me ‘sir,’ landlord? I’m only a cheap-jack.”
“That yew bain’t, zur,” replied the landlord, with respectful contradiction. “Aw knows gentry when aw sees ‘um.”
“But I’m not a gentleman, confound you.”
“Aw’ve been tu Lunnon, zur, an’ ses I when I sees ‘um, ‘Thet’s gentry, fur zure.’“
Dan contradicted him again, but receiving nothing but an obstinate shake of the head, rode off on his bare-backed steed, followed by the “Marnin’, zur,” of the landlord and attendant satellites. As a would-be tramp he was a distinct failure.
“There’s nothing for it,” said Dan, as Simon climbed the hill; “I must get an accent of some sort. Perhaps Mother Jericho will teach me how to patter. They don’t teach the rural accent at Oxford, more’s the pity. I must say ‘marnin’’ and ‘zur’ and ‘oi,’ or they’ll see through my disguise at once. What the deuce made me come on this wild-goose chase? I don’t say it’s not amusing, but I’m such a palpable fraud that I can’t even gain the confidence of the lower orders. They all call me ‘zur’ and grin, and expect to be tipped. Hang it, no; as a cheap-jack I bar tipping. Puh! Here’s the top of the hill at last. Tired, Simon?”
Simon was tired, and intimated as much by refusing to move an inch for a few minutes. During the continuance of this fit of obstinacy his master gazed at the Gates of Dawn, and his thoughts reverted to the vision of sunrise.
“I wonder who that girl can be? I must see her again, if only to feast my eyes on the loveliest face I ever saw in my life. ‘T’ doctor’s lass!’ I’ll get an ache or a pain, or something, and call on that doctor. I hope I won’t be such a fool as to fall in love with Aurora! It would never do. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and rustic beauty does not look at home in the silks and farthingales of London. That old woman said I should meet my fate at the Gates of Dawn. Is that wild rose my fate, and if so, is—? Pshaw! I’m talking nonsense, and breakfast is waiting! Move on, Simon.”
From this speech it will be seen that Dan was by no means the person he represented himself to be. He spoke of London, of Oxford, of silks, satins, and tipping. Cheap-jacks are ignorant of such things. Even in looks he failed to impose on the rural population. Borrow, the glorious Bohemian, never would have recognized so arrant an impostor as one of the “fancy.” Altogether Dan was rather crestfallen at his attempt to act the part of a cheap-jack, but could not help laughing at his own failure. To reverse the fable, this peacock could not strut in jackdaw plumes.
The fire was nearly out when he reached the camp, but an armful of sticks soon made it blaze merrily again. All was exactly as he left it, and Dan could espy no thievish footsteps about his caravan. The taboo of Mother Jericho was evidently efficacious, or her people were exceptionally honest. Knowing somewhat of the gipsy nature, Dan held to the former opinion.
“I wonder if the old lady will pay me another visit?” said Dan, as he busied himself getting breakfast; “she said something about coming here at noon. Or was it another person she mentioned? Well, I don’t much care who it is, so long as they can instruct me as to the name and identity of Aurora. ‘And Joy comes up through the Gates of Dawn.’ What a pretty song she sang, and what a voice she has! and why don’t you be sensible, Dan, and drop talking nonsense?”
He took his own advice, and ceased to soliloquize. Indeed, his culinary cares did not permit him to continue it. With a dexterity begotten by long practice, he soon prepared the meal. Eggs and bacon, fragrant coffee, and bread and butter. O Lavengro, think of such a meal in the wilderness! What pioneer is this, to feed on such dainties! Lucullus should not tramp the country with his kitchen on his back.
Peter had some dog-biscuits soaked in milk, and likewise devoured such scraps of bacon as were left. He fared badly in this respect, as Dan scraped the platter clean. Simon partook of oats and hay, after which he returned to his grazing. The grass was succulent, and Simon hungry, so he wished for nothing better than to be left alone.
After breakfast, Dan washed up his crockery and cutlery, then lighted his beloved pipe. At peace with himself and the whole world, he sat by the fire and put Peter through a few tricks. Peter objected, and retreated with his tail—or what was called by courtesy his tail—between his legs; so, failing to find further diversion, Dan got out his diary.
“I’m afraid this doesn’t look like a cheap-jack,” said he, sharpening a pencil; “they don’t keep diaries, as a rule. There are many things to be set down this morning: Mother Jericho’s visit, her prophecy and its fulfilment at the Gates of Dawn. I would I were an artist, to sketch that face. Talk about the Madonna type! Ah me!”
He sighed as a tribute to the absent beauty, and busied himself in writing up the events of the last two days. Beyond the noting of a few facts, he had nothing whatever to write about. Such thoughts as he had were not worth committing to paper. And what, indeed, is the use of a healthy young man setting down immature fancies? Youth can write poetry, which is purely inspirational; but not novels or essays, both of which imply a long experience of human nature. Up to the age of thirty, unless gifted with the faculty of observance, youth is too interested in itself to concern itself with other people. It certainly troubles about the gentler sex, but they defy analysis, and he is a bold man who limns you a portrait in pen and ink with the remark, “This is a woman I once knew.” Did you meet the original, you would find her vastly different. Women have as many sides to their characters as a diamond has facets, and never show the same side twice to one person. In such “weathercockisms”—to coin a word—lies their greatest charm.
This is all very well, but has nothing to do with Dan in his camp. It were wiser not to digress, but to keep to the subject-matter in hand. Therefore to return to Dan and his scribbling. He wrote down his adventures, tried to recollect the words of Aurora’s song, and finally, dropping pencil and book, fell to meditating on her beauty. In truth, he could think of nothing else.
Now, the question is, Was he in love? Impossible! He knew nothing of the girl, he did not even know her name, so it was impossible that love could be born of a brief glance. Even Romeo’s passion for Juliet had the advantage of a few hurried words. No! Dan was not in love, yet he felt strange sensations in the region of the heart when that face floated cherub-fashion—i.e. without body—before his mind’s eye. Perhaps this was because the words of the red-cloaked sibyl had predisposed him to take special notice of the girl, and think of her as a possible factor in his life. Was she indeed his fate? He determined to question Mother Jericho closely the next time he saw her.
What with writing and idling and smoking, the morning passed very quickly, and the sun, pouring its rays vertically on the dell, warned him that it was noon. At that time Mother Jericho had promised that he should receive a visitor, so Dan packed away his diary and kept a sharp look-out on the road. Meanwhile he felt too restless to sit still, and walked up and down the limited area of the hollow.
Who he was, and what he was, and why he came to be camping in so solitary a place, will be told in due course. At present you can see that he is merely a rover of thirty, bent upon making holiday and getting the best out of life. What his name is matters not at present. He chose to call himself Dan, which is short for Daniel, but the name did not suit him in the least. He looked quite unlike a Daniel. There is a fitness in names as in other things.
The promised visitor did not arrive at the appointed hour, and Dan became impatient. He had longing thoughts in the direction of his midday meal, and, indeed, was about to see after it, when Peter’s sharp bark announced the approach of the expected visitor. It was not Mother Jericho, but a tall and powerfully built man.
He strode boldly down the road and into the dell. Dan made a step forward to greet him, but the other drew back and looked at him carefully. Apparently the stranger was satisfied with his scrutiny, for he advanced with smile and outstretched hand. Not knowing whether to be pleased or angry, Dan gave his own reluctantly.
“What is your name?” said he.
“Tinker Tim,” replied the other gruffly. “I come from Mother Jericho.”
“‘And there were giants on the earth in those days,’“ quoth Dan, eyeing the mighty bulk of his visitor. “Can you box, my friend?”
“Try me,” said Tinker Tim, putting up his fists.
Here was a polite reception to give a guest. It is not the custom in civilized society for the host to invite the stranger within his gates to a bout of fisticuffs. But this was not polite society, and Dan had retrograded to primevalism. In the days of old, when fighting was hand to hand, and not conducted at long range, men usually commenced their friendships by thrashing one another. Robin Hood is an excellent example of this. In Merry Sherwood he beat the stranger, or the stranger beat him, either with fists or at quarter-staff, and afterwards the combatants fraternized. Each wished to see if the other was a man, before admitting him to his friendship. Dan was of this way of thinking, and eyed his opponent like a fighting-cock.
If there was one thing he loved, it was a bout with the gloves, and Tim was apparently of the same mind. They were quite amicable, and disposed to be friendly with each other, but the friendship had to be cemented with blows and blood. The scent of battle—of friendly battle, to couple incongruous terms—was in the air. Dan was of goodly stature, and ready with his fists. He prided himself on his long reach of arm and quickness of eye. In the parts from which he came, few men cared to stand up to him, for he had been victorious times without number. His victories were so many and so easy that he longed to meet a dogged foe who could hold his own; therefore his mouth watered when he saw the thews and fists of his guest. They were eloquent of a prolonged battle, and Dan promised himself a happy morning.
Tim was a son of Anak, six and a half feet high, and big in proportion. Not an ounce of superfluous flesh on his bones; nothing but tanned hide and swelling muscle. His face was burnt brown by the sun and reddened by the wind; and he wore a bushy black beard, which was slightly streaked with grey. His bold black eyes looked defiance, while the gold rings which adorned his ears added to his already barbaric appearance. A swarthy malcontent he seemed at first sight, a cut-throat of the Spanish main, a piratical desperado; yet, on a closer inspection, his good-humoured smile did away with such bloodthirsty appearances. He, too, counted his victories by the score, and sighed, like Alexander, for fresh worlds or men to conquer. Dan could not have given him a better welcome than that invitation to battle, and his eye sparkled with pleasure at the prospect. Each saw that the other was a man, and wished to decide which was the better. A fit of Berserk fury was on them both.
“Come on, rye,” said Tim, eager for the fray. “I’ll fight you for a fi’-pun note.”
“I cannot wager so large an amount,” replied Dan, gravely. “I am a poor man.”
Tim glanced at the caravan, and laughed hoarsely. He had his own opinion on the matter, or else had taken his cue from Mother Jericho. However, he was too bent on fighting to argue, and his face grew impatient as he poised himself lightly in an attitude of defence with scientifically placed fists.
“Ain’t you goin’ to put ‘em up?” said he, sharply.
“Not without the gloves, friend. I’ve no notion of letting those sledge-hammer fists of yours spoil my beauty.”
“Ho! Women like to see men mashed a bit. Them’s the kind they love best.”
“That may be! Women are all hero-worshippers. All the same, I wish my face to remain as it is. A broken nose may be heroic, but it isn’t pleasing to the eye.”
And with such speech he disappeared into the caravan, whence he emerged with the boxing-gloves. Throwing a pair of these to Tim, he put on his own, and in a minute or so the two men were warily circling round one another. Peter was the only spectator of this famous fight, and he encouraged the combatants with sharp barks when the blows fell unusually thick.
“Here is Lavengro again,” thought Dan, aiming a blow at the jaw of his opponent. “I have dropped across the Flaming Tinman.”
And Lavengro alone could have fully described that Homeric contest. There was no hesitancy or half-heartedness about it. They pounded one another whenever they got the chance, and sent the blows straight from the shoulder. Thrice was Dan toppled over like a ninepin, and twice did Tim measure his length on the grassy sward. If one had the greater weight, the other had the quicker eye. Tim’s leg-of-mutton fists did terrific damage when they got home on Dan’s body, but for the most part they descended innocuously, so dexterously did the latter guard. At first they smiled, but soon their blood warmed and their faces set. Strength and agility were fairly matched, so that though the battle raged for close on an hour, each managed to hold his own. Dan could make no impression on the elephantine frame of Tim, and the tinker grew weary of trying to hit a flash of lightning in the person of the vagrant. It was as pretty a sight as a man might see in a day’s walk, but so equal were both boxers that the contest seemed likely to last till sunset. The account of such a combat should roll off the tongue in blank verse or leaping hexameter, and be chanted by some noble minstrel. Nothing meaner can suffice! It is impossible to play an oratorio on a penny whistle.
At length, when Dan had a bleeding nose and Tim a swelling eye, they threw down their gloves by mutual consent and declared it a drawn battle. On such result they shook hands like the manly pair they were, and Tim vented his emotion in a mighty oath which here need only be paraphrased.
“By the ghost of Black Ben the Bruiser,” said he, clapping his friendly antagonist on the shoulder, “you’re a man, you are! None other shall have her, I swear.”
“Have whom?” asked Dan, bathing his crimsoned nose in the bucket.
“Never you mind, rye,” replied Tim, ambiguously; “that’s neither here nor there. It might be Mother Jericho, for all you know.”
Not particularly attentive to this speech, Dan went on splashing up the ice-cold water; and Tim, with his black beard clutched in one begrimed hand, sat looking steadily at him. The vagrant seemed to find favour in his eyes, for during his scrutiny he grunted once or twice as though satisfied. It was evidently something more than personal prowess that recommended Dan to the gipsy giant. What it was must remain locked up in Tim’s brain for the present.
“Why didn’t Mother Jericho come with you, Tim?”
“She’s got the rheumatism, rye, and sits in her tent squeaking like a trapped rabbit. ‘Twas she who told me to look ye up.”
“Wanted to know the result of her prophecy, I suppose?”
“Ay, ay! She told your fortune, did she? A good un for charming brass out of pockets, she is. Maybe she promised ye a wench, lad?”
“That she did. Two wenches! I met one this morning.”
“Did ye, now? And where, my brave rye?”
“‘Joy comes up through the Gates of Dawn,’“ hummed Dan, wiping his face.
This mystical utterance was of course unintelligible to Tim, who looked up as though about to demand an explanation; but on second thoughts he threw himself down for a rest. He was not so young as he had been, and the violent exercise of the last sixty minutes had told slightly on his iron frame.
“That was a good un, rye,” said he, referring to the combat; “but you’re too much of the eel for me. It ain’t at sixty years that a man should mash round after a slippery chap like you.”
“Are you sixty years of age?” exclaimed Dan; and as Tim nodded, he continued, “Well, you don’t look it, my man.”
“Open air and exercise, plain fare and daily change,” replied Tim, glibly running off his lists of arts for circumventing the enemy Time; “but I’m beginning to get on, brother. There’s a hole as I’ll fall into afore long. Yet there’s work to be done and wrongs to be righted afore I am tripped up. When all’s square, I’ll tumble into Mother Earth’s arms with the rest.”
Engaged in getting victuals from the caravan, Dan did not at once comment on this mournful speech. When he did speak, his remark was more practical than sympathetic.
“No doubt you’re hungry after that tussle, Tim.”
“Ay, and thirsty. What have you to drink?”
“Bottled beer. Here! don’t spoil your dinner by smoking.”
Tim rapped the ashes out of his pipe, and with an assenting grin restored it to his pocket. Then he fell to caressing Peter.
“A fine leetle dawg, squire!”
“Pedigree dog! Kennel Club,” replied Dan, curtly.
“Ho, ho!” laughed the tinker, hoarsely, “and you call yourself a crocus! My Sam! You’re a gentleman, you are—a great gentleman.”
“Pish! Do I look like a great gentleman in these rags?”
“Ay, that you do, and burn him who says nay,” replied Tim, emphatically. Whereat Dan laughed in a somewhat embarrassed fashion, and by way of changing the subject, intimated that the meal was ready.
A meal he called it—by Vesta, goddess of the spit, it was a lordly banquet to which they sat down. Cold beef and pickles, bottled beer and cheese, with a plentiful supply of fresh bread. Can you ask anything better than to eat such victuals in the open air on a warm summer day, with voices of bird and bee, and sigh of wind, and roar of ocean, around? To feed in an airless dining-room were less conducive to appetite.
The pair ate as they had fought, with a will, and the fragments of the feast would scarcely have filled one basket, let alone a dozen. Tim did most of the talking, and Dan could not help noticing that his speech was much more refined than was his appearance. This incongruity he touched on during the progress of the meal.
“Where did you learn to speak so Well, Tim?”
“Do I speak well, rye?” demanded the tinker, with marked surprise. “Well, ye see, I’m a Romany, I am, and we generally speak better than the lower orders of your natives. We have our own tongue, you know—the black language—and speak that among ourselves. But I’ve been among the Gorgios, rye, in my time, and maybe have picked up their way of talking.”
“Were you always a tinker?”
“Ay! And my father and grandfather before me! We Romany follow the trades of our ancestors, and have our pride, though you Gentiles think us beasts of the field. But never mind my chatter, rye! I don’t ask to know your business, so let mine be.”
After the fight, in which he had proved himself capable of holding his own, Dan could afford to let this reproof pass without the imputation of cowardice, so merely laughed at Tim’s asperity, and lighted his pipe. The tinker, restored to good humour by this silent acquiescence, did the same, and the pair were soon puffing amicably together. There is no peacemaker like tobacco.
“Who is t’ doctor’s lass, Tim?” asked Dan, suddenly.
“Ho, ho! Have you run her to earth, rye? Isn’t she a beauty?—eyes like stars, and hair like midnight!”
“You know her, then?”
“Every one for ten miles round knows her. She’s out on the moors from dawn till sunset. A born Romany she is, though coming of Gorgio stock. And where did you clap eyes on her, rye?”
“Coming up through the Gates of Dawn at sunrise.”
“Ay! Been swimming, I guess!”
“Can she swim?”
“Like an otter. And ride, and shoot, and fish, and tramp her thirty miles a day.”
“Quite a Diana!”
“I don’t know about no Diana,” retorted Tim, gruffly; “but she’s a clipper, and no mistake. Her fist is as ready as her tongue.”
“Borrow’s Isopel in the flesh!” thought Dan, who listened eagerly to this account of his unknown nymph. “And what is the name of this Amazon?” he asked aloud.
“Meg Merle. She’s the daughter of Dr. Merle, who lives in Farbis village. An old fool he is, who sleeps and dreams and shuts his eyes to her beauty.”
“She is beautiful,” said Dan, reflectively; “very—very beautiful!”
Tim looked at him suspiciously and frowned. An unpleasant thought had just crossed his mind.
“She’s as good as she’s beautiful, rye,” he growled, “and can look after herself, I reckon. I shouldn’t like to be the man who put an insult on her. I’d smash him,” added the tinker, bringing down his huge fist with terrific force—“I’d smash him!”
“Is that meant for me?” asked Dan, sharply, noting the suspicious look in the eyes of his guest.
“Them as the cap fits can wear it, rye! You’re a gentleman, though you don’t choose to call yourself one, and gentlemen think country girls fine game; so—”
“That’s quite sufficient, my friend,” cried the vagrant. “I know what you are about to say. Don’t bellow out your warning. Gentleman or no gentleman, she has no need to fear me.”
Tim eyed him narrowly, and then, rolling over, gripped Dan’s hand in his own huge paw. It was his way of apologizing for his unjust suspicions.
“I trust ye! I trust ye! A man who can use his mauleys like you ain’t a cur to play tricks on women. If I’ve offended you—”
“You haven’t offended me, friend. Say no more about it.”
So speaking, he rose abruptly and walked to the other side of the dell. Though he denied being angry, he was in reality rather indignant at Tim’s imputation of libertinism. No man likes to be thought a scoundrel, and Dan did not like it. Yet he saw that the warning was dictated in a friendly spirit, so his wrath evaporated by the time he returned to the fire. At once he began to speak on a different subject, and Tim, seeing he was annoyed, gladly fell in with his humour.
“I must come over to your camp, Tim. Where is it?”
“Down yonder on the edge of the moor. We’ll make ye as welcome as the dawn.”
“I’ll come over, if only to find out why Mother Jericho coupled my name with that of this girl.”
“It wasn’t Mother Jericho, but Fate,” said Tim, with great simplicity. “If it be as she’s to be your wife, there’s no way out of it.”
“Pish! I’ll never set eyes on her again, Tim. I leave this place to-morrow.”
“Not if Mother Jericho read your hand truly.”
There was no combating this obstinacy, as Tim was evidently a firm believer in palmistry. As a gipsy, he could not in reason be otherwise. Dan did not attempt to argue the matter, and after a few more words they parted, as Tim had business on hand.
“I’m off tinkering to a village ten miles from here, rye,” said he; “but don’t ‘ee forget to come to our camp when it suits you. I’ll be proud to put on the gloves with you again.” And with this pugilistic invitation he parted from his late antagonist.
Dan remained lying where he was, and bearing in mind Tim’s warning, made up his mind to baffle Mother Jericho’s forecast if possible. But Fate proved too strong for him. Before the week was out, he met again with her whom he ironically christened the “Diana of Farbis.”
Not wishing to cut myself off entirely from civilization, I write to apprise you of my adventures while exploring England. I am in the wilds—that is, in a lonely village surrounded by moors, and twenty miles from the nearest town. A ragged boy on a ragged pony carries letters to and fro from this place—Farbis it is called—twice a week. Other communication with the world there is none, so you see I am sufficiently isolated from the influences of the nineteenth century.
Of course you knew my intention of coming here, therefore you can express no surprise at the name of the village. I have seen the Court at a distance—a red-brick structure embosomed in pine woods—but as yet I have not called on the old lady who lives there. I cannot very well present myself in my character of a vagabond, as you may suppose; and, moreover, this wild life is so delightful that I wish to keep to myself as much as possible.
When I think of you dawdling in park and club, I pity you heartily. I, too, have been in—shall I call it Arcady?—and suffered the ennui of the season. Now I live, not in your artificial manner, but after a hale and lusty fashion which precludes weariness. I rise with the lark, and retire with the dicky birds. For the most part my bed is a fur rug beside a roaring fire under the stars, and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. This last statement appears extraordinary, but it is precisely true.
I begin to think civilization is a mistake, and that a cultivated man does not get so much out of his life as does the untutored savage. This is a somewhat quixotic way of looking at things, I admit; but, having tried both existences, I heartily pronounce in favour of the latter. I have an appetite which Gargantua might envy; I feel the blood rush through my veins; and I enjoy my life with a zest of which you, puny club-lounger, can have no conception. Such primevalism suits me, and I can well understand the fascination it has for so many men. I protest, Jack, that I never truly appreciated the history of the Scholar Gipsy till I read Arnold’s poem by the light of my camp-fire. You get at the inmost soul of the thing from such circumstance.
And talking about gipsies, I am at present fraternizing with a tribe of genuine vagrants who have pitched their ragged tents close at hand. When I go there and see their Eastern looks, I feel as though some genie had transported me to an encampment of Bedouins in Arabia. My location is in a dell almost hidden by overhanging trees, but on occasions I descend through the pine woods to see my brother-vagrants on the edge of the moor. Though I do not know a word of Romany, and am clearly an alien, they receive me most amicably, which says much for their innate good breeding. Were I but a proficient in their tongue, no doubt they would call me “brother” and “Romany Rye,” as their grandparents did Borrow.
“Lavengro” is another work which can only be appreciated in these surroundings. I have read it at least six times since leaving London, but it never palls on my taste, never grows dull, and exercises the same fascination as on the first perusal. Nay, more; Fate has taken a leaf from that glorious book and bestowed on me an adventure or so in the Borrovian style. My dell is a replica of that famous Dingle, and—would you believe it?—I have done battle with an individual like the Flaming Tinman. He also is a tinker and a bruiser, but here the resemblance ends. He is not a brute, and has no doxy trailing at his heels. Nor, alas! did he bring me an Isopel to whom I could teach—say French, in place of Armenian. One can say many pretty things in French, and the verbs lend themselves as readily to a philological flirtation as does the more recondite language of Lavengro. But I have no Isopel—at present.
I see you raise your eyebrows at those two last words. You are wrong to suspect evil where none exists. It is true that there is a nymph of these parts—but I had better tell you the beginning of the story. On the night of my arrival in this dell, there came to me a red-cloaked hag who prophesied like a veritable Deborah. Only one scrap of her jargon do I recollect—that Joy should come up through the Gates of Dawn. These same gates are two giant cliffs that stand sentinel at the entrance to Farbis valley. I went down for a swim next morning, and when the sun rose out of the ocean and poured his beams through this chasm, it looked not unlike the Gates of the Day. The name is a poetical one, and pretty. I can quite understand some mute inglorious Milton having so christened this natural entrance. Here I saw Joy coming up as predicted, in the person of a lovely young woman, whom I at first took to be a mermaid, but the sight of whose bare feet dispelled the illusion. I caught but a glimpse of her face, and—
Now, don’t finish the sentence for me by saying I lost my heart. I did no such thing; but I own that a very clear picture of this stray Nereid is imprinted on my mind. I have not seen her since that morning, so, to convince myself that she was of mortal mould, I asked my friend the tinker about her. It seems she is the daughter of a Dr. Merle, and leads a kind of huntress-life in the woods and on the moors. Tim—my reality of the Flaming Tinman—waxed enthusiastic over her knowledge of wood-lore, her perfect swimming, her straight shooting, and various other accomplishments less feminine than masculine. He concluded by warning me not to fall in love if I did not mean to marry her. Did you ever hear such rubbish?—as though I were a wolf in disguise, on the prowl for maidens of tender years! I doubt whether I shall ever see her again, and I can only remember her as Aurora coming up through the Gates of Dawn. No! I have not the slightest wish to play the part of Tithonus, though I swear she is lovely enough to snare a less inflammable person than myself.
To speak seriously, I should like to see this girl again. She must be a very original creature to lead the life she does. I detest masculine women. Yet this Diana of Farbis piques my curiosity. Still, I shall not go out of my way to court Fate. If I meet Diana, it must be by chance; but, as I leave here in three days, I doubt whether I shall set eyes on her again. If I see her, if I fall in love with her, if I marry her, what would you say? But then, you see, I say “if”! “Much virtue in that little word,” as sage Touchstone remarks.
If you remember, we jested on the probability of my meeting with a wife on my travels. What if this unknown nymph should prove to be my fate in the marriage-market? Mother Jericho, the gipsy sybil, hinted pretty strongly that she whom I met at the Gates of Dawn would become my wife. Well, I met this Diana, this Rosalind, this Meg—not Merrilies, but Merle—the doctor’s daughter. There is not the slightest chance of my introducing her to you in such a rôle, I assure you. I have no belief in palmistry, nor, for the matter of that, in mésalliances.
But enough of women and love and guesses at the future. I must tell you of my fight with the tinker—or, rather, I would tell you had I the genius of Homer or the pen of Lavengro. I have neither. I fought a battle with him out of sheer love of fighting. There was no ill will on either side. We simply put on the gloves for a jest, and he was as eager as I to see who was the better man. Neither of us won, so I suppose we are about equal. Some fine day I’ll have another bout with him, and see if I can’t come off victorious. Tim is no mean foe, I assure you.
These are all the adventures I have to tell you at present, but you must own that they are sufficiently exciting for these prosaic days. If you yawn over this letter and scoff in your superfine way at my Tinker, my Diana, my red-cloaked Witch, I will never again put pen to paper for your pleasure. If my correspondence is not so exciting as the romances of Dumas, it has at least the merit of being perfectly true, which is more than you can say for the glibly uttered lies of a thousand bragging Bobadils who have been to Africa and shot mythical elephants.
In my next letter I will narrate my departure from this place, and my touching farewells of my gipsy friends. After all, I am not sure that I won’t travel with them. They are a fascinating lot, though rather in want of soap and water. I may as well play my part of vagrant thoroughly, though, I must confess, I have hitherto been a dismal failure. Evidently I have not dressed the character properly, for the most addle-headed yokel calls me “zur,” and looks expectant of a shilling. I am trying to get up an accent, but it’s mighty difficult. Greek, which the monks said was an invention of the devil, is easy compared with this lingo.
You can write me a letter in reply to this, addressed to “Dan, Post Office, Farbis,” and I’ll call for it. Dan is my travelling name. It is, I think, admirably suited to me, and I like it better than the one given to me by my godparents. Peter is quite well, and sends his love. He is having a glorious time, and actually got within a yard of a rabbit the other day. Simon is sleek and steady, and holds his tongue, which is more than I can say of Peter. And now, my friend, I must close this letter, for which you ought to be very grateful, as it is written under great difficulties, with a bad pencil, in a bad light. To keep up the spirit of the thing, I sign my travelling name, and take leave of you so.
Proprietor of caravan, horse, and dog, at present encamped at Farbis.
P.S.—Should I meet with Diana, I will give you a full account of the interview. What she said, what I said, how we met and how we parted, and all the rest of it.
The determination of Dan to remain at Farbis did not result in any immediate reward for such aiding of Destiny. Not a glimpse did he obtain of Meg Merle, and he began to think her invisible, after the fashion of the nameless nymph in “Lamia.” Sometimes he heard her singing in the distance; but, though he followed the sound of her voice, he never succeeded in casting eyes on her face. It might be that she evaded a meeting, for while searching he caught at times the echo of a laugh. Then her singing would recommence further off, and he would again be lured onward, only to be disappointed anew. She flitted through the pine wood like a spectre, and though her voice filled it with music, she was as hidden as any bird. Were she viewless Echo herself, she could not have been more invisible.
This feminine caprice angered Dan, and piqued his curiosity. He felt as though he were in a fairy wood, searching for some princess, spellbound by a powerful magician. Search as he might, the result was always the same. After a time he waxed sulky, and stayed persistently by his camp-fire, hoping that, if Destiny willed this phantom beauty to be his wife, she would come in due time into his presence. Not that he really believed in such fatalism, but the prophecy of Mother Jericho was not without a certain influence on his mind. He was of a somewhat impressionable nature, and at a rather impressionable age; so it might be that the fulfilment of one prediction led him to attach more value to the others than they deserved. Perhaps, also, he hoped to baffle Fate by remaining snug in his dell; but if so, the hope was vain, for in due course came the hour of fulfilment, and with it the woman.
In the gipsy camp he found a new phase of life which amused him exceedingly, and was not sparing of his company to the gentle Romany. No more hospitable hosts could have been found than those ragged wanderers who made the world their home. They invited him to dip into their stew-pot, danced for him by the red firelight, sang wild gipsy songs to him in unknown tongues, and, miracle of miracles, were scrupulously honest in regard to his goods and chattels. Mother Jericho and Tim in command of the tribe, were his firm friends, else he might have found these vagrants less inclined to keep their thievish fingers from his belongings. As it was, he lost not so much as a stick, and began to think that the magpie propensities of the gipsies had been somewhat overrated.
This wild life among wild people pleased him, and he found the days pass rapidly in the indulging of such simple pleasures. Every morning he rode Simon to the seashore for a matutinal swim, but never did he meet Joy in the person of Meg “coming up through the Gates of Dawn,” though he kept a sharp look-out for a recurrence of the phenomenon. On his way back to camp he bought eggs and milk and bread, so as to lay in a stock of provisions for the day. For the rest of the golden hours he philandered about the woods in chase of that invisible mockery, or paid an idle visit to gipsydom. When all other pleasures palled, he sat smoking in the sunshine and read “Lavengro.” The book never failed to enchain his fancy.
On the fourth day, so restless is human nature, he began to weary of dell, of gipsies, of his own company, even of the book of books. A spirit of wandering seized on him fiercely, and this nostalgia of the road made him think seriously of once more putting Simon between the shafts of his caravan. There was nothing to see in the slatternly village, and comparatively little to interest him on the moors. Had he brought a gun, he might have sought relief in shooting rabbits, of which there were plenty about. But having no gun, he simply idled on the heath and set Peter after the bunnies, a task to which the terrier was by no means averse. But never by any chance did Peter catch a rabbit.
It was during one of these excursions that he fell in again with Meg Merle. Looking down on Farbis Vale, and wondering how its people managed to support such isolation, he saw a rabbit scuttle past his feet. The next moment there was a sharp report, and it rolled over with a piteous squeal. Startled by the danger of the shot, and congratulating himself that Peter was safe, Dan turned round sharply to remonstrate with the reckless sportsman. The next moment, with cap in hand, he was bowing before Diana of Farbis.
Evidently she had just returned from a shooting excursion, for two dead rabbits hung at her girdle, and she advanced to pick up the third. In a short dress of rough serge, a cap of the same material, gaiters and boots, she presented a somewhat uncommon appearance—rather masculine, to speak the truth, but on the whole not unpleasing. Dan thought of Di Vernon, of Atalanta, of the Lady of the Lake, and mythical Artemis, but in his heart acknowledged that none could have been so fair as she whom he beheld.
She was in the spring of womanhood, a very Hebe for girlish grace, a very type of incarnate purity. Her face was one of those provoking countenances winch baffle description. Can one hope, by stringing together items of grey eyes, red lips, rosy cheek, or pearly teeth, to describe the looks of a fair woman? As soon expect poetry in an auctioneer’s catalogue. The soul looking out of the clear eyes, the piquant expression of the curved lip, the ineffable charm of virginal purity,—who can hope to analyze such things? Not Dan, for one. Without attempting to reduce the component parts of this loveliness to dry facts, he simply stared spellbound at this fresh girlhood. Rosy as the dawn, full of life as a young roe, instinct with vitality and grace, she was like some beautiful wild creature of the woods. One such as the Greeks feigned haunted springs as nymphs, and boles of trees as dryads.
Their eyes met as he took off his cap, in homage at once to beauty and purity and womanhood. Her looks charmed his eye and struck hard at his heart, as to capture it in one dash. She spoke first, and turned the dream to reality.
“What do ‘ee want messing about this yer plaace?” said the dream-maiden with the broadest accent. “It be ‘mazing theng aw didn’t shoot ‘ee.”
With great self-control Dan managed to suppress the exclamation of surprise which arose involuntarily to his lips. That this fairy princess, this invisible nymph, this phantom of delight, should speak the coarse country dialect, came on him like a douche of cold water. He gasped and stared, and opened his mouth without speaking. The reaction was too terrible for mere speech.
“Whoy doan’t ‘ee saay summat?” demanded the girl, with a twinkle in her eye. “Bean’t ‘ee—”
“Don’t,” murmured Dan, faintly—“don’t speak. It’s too horrible!”
To his surprise she began to laugh gaily, and when her hilarity had somewhat subsided, addressed him in the purest English with a noticeably refined accent.
“You do not care for our country way of talking,” said she, putting a rebellious curl in its place.
“Not from your lips,” he answered, after recovering from his second shock. “Who cares to hear Venus mouth the Scythian tongue?”
She looked puzzled at the grandiloquence of this speech, and shifted her gun to the other arm. Dan saw that she was surveying him with the deepest interest, and, being a modest young man, blushed at such persistent scrutiny.
“So you are the gentleman who fought with Tim?”
“I am the vagrant who fought with the tinker,” corrected Dan, smiling. “Why do you call me gentleman?”
“Because Sir Alurde Breel was a gentleman, and you are just like him.”
“Indeed! I am much flattered by the comparison. Does Sir Alurde Breel live in these parts?”
“He did, but died three hundred years ago,” replied Meg, dryly. “His picture is in the gallery at Farbis Court. He is an ancestor of the present Lord Ardleigh who owns the Court.”
“Does his lordship live there?”
“No! He is in London, I believe. Farbis Court is let to Miss Linisfarne. But these things do not interest you. Please pick up that rabbit.”
“You have had bad sport to-day,” said Dan, hastening to obey this order.
“Very bad! Still I have three rabbits to take home. Would you like one?”
“I adore rabbit stew, Miss Merle.”
“Then keep that last one I shot. I see you know my name.”
“I do! Tinker Tim told me all about you.”
Meg frowned and then laughed. Her mirth was very musical.
“Tim has a very long tongue, Mr. Dan.”
“Don’t call me Mr. Dan.”
“Then don’t you call me Miss Merle!” she said saucily.
“Everybody else does,” said Dan, unwilling to take advantage of such innocence; “and you see I can hardly call you Meg. I am a stranger to you.”
“Oh no! I have heard all about you from Tim and Mother Jericho. Besides, you are so like Sir Alurde that I seem to know you quite well.”
“A thousand blessings on the resemblance. I shall at once take advantage of your kind permission. Do you go often to Farbis Court—Meg?”
“Very often, Dan. Miss Linisfarne is very kind to me.”
“Oh, the lady who lives at the Court in place of its owner! Where is Lord Ardleigh?”
“In London, I believe,” she said rather contemptuously. “I have no doubt he is one of those finical fine gentlemen of whom Miss Linisfarne talks.”
“That is not a flattering portrait,” said Dan, smiling.
“Probably not; but I have no doubt it is a true one.”
“Are you sure of that, Miss Merle?”
“I told you I am not Miss Merle, Mr. Dan.”
“Then address me as Dan, if you want me to be less formal.”
“Of course I shall call you Dan,” said she, opening her eyes in feigned surprise. “What else should I call you?”
Meg laughed at this sally. They were getting very friendly, much to Dan’s delight. All at once, as though recollecting herself, she ceased laughing and made as if to go. Dan stepped eagerly forward.
“Let me carry your gun, Meg.”
“What for? I can carry it myself,” she replied bluntly.
“I would rather relieve you of the burden.”
“Very well, Dan. Take those other two rabbits; but I’ll carry my own gun, thank you. What queer ideas you have! Just like those of Miss Linisfarne.”
“Does she carry your burdens?” asked Dan, gravely.
They were now walking down the winding road to the village.
“I should think not,” replied Meg, laughing at the bare idea. “But you have the same manners as she has.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“Oh no! It is the truth. My father is not at all like you, nor is Mr. Jarner, the vicar. I have never seen any one like you,” she finished, looking at him with great interest.
“Not even Sir Alurde?”
“Oh, don’t talk any more of that picture, or I shall be sorry I spoke of it.”
She was quite unsophisticated, and frankly uttered the thoughts that came into her mind. Hence the flimsy dialogue which ensued between them. Dan, unused to such candour, could not help feeling charmed at the purity of the soul thus laid bare to his gaze.
“I saw you at the Gates of Dawn,” said she, with an evident desire to change the subject. “Were you not very shocked at my appearing with bare feet?”
“I was charmed.”
“Nonsense, Dan! It was an accident. I was swimming, and the tide carried away my shoes and stockings. I did not mind it much till I saw you. Then I felt dreadfully ashamed.”
“Why should you? ‘Beauty unadorned is adorned the most!’“
“You speak like Sir Charles Grandison,” said Meg, with a blush at the compliment.
“Ah! you have read that book?”
“Yes. I like it very much. Miss Linisfarne has many old novels in her library, but she will not let me read all of them.”
“It is best to rely on her taste,” said Dan, not relishing the idea of this innocent reading Richardson’s contemporaries. “Are you fond of reading?”
“Not very. I prefer fishing or shooting.”
“Who taught you to fish and shoot?”
“Tim and Parson Jarner. You don’t know him, do you? He’s a dear old man, and so fond of dogs and horses.”
“Rather peculiar tastes for a clergyman.”
She opened her eyes wide at his remark, and as he had no wish to be the first to teach her worldly wisdom, Dan dismissed the subject.
“Never mind,” said he, ambiguously; “I’ll tell you another time. Don’t you find it dull here?”
“Not at all! Why should I? There is always plenty to do. I swim and ride, and fish and shoot. I go across the moors with Parson Jarner; and I visit Miss Linisfarne two or three times a week. Besides, there are many things in the pine woods to give me pleasure.”
“What kind of things?”
“Birds, and beasts, and spiders, and flowers. If you have sharp eyes, you can see all manner of queer things.”
“A female Jefferies!” thought Dan; then aloud, “You must teach me your woodcraft. I cannot see the marvels you describe.”
“How strange! Yes, I’ll teach you with pleasure. I shall come to your dell and look at your caravan. Now we must part, Dan. My father expects me home.”
“You won’t forget your promise,” said he, clasping her hand.
“No; I’ll come when I can. Goodbye, Dan.”
And then they parted. But one, at least, looked forward eagerly to their next meeting. Needless to say, that one was Dan.
“The third meeting will be fatal,” said Dan to himself as he climbed the hill. “At the first I liked her beauty; now I am charmed with her innocence and candour. When I meet her for the third time, it may be a case of love.”
It was indeed astonishing how persistently the face and speech of Meg haunted his mind. She was so unconscious of her own beauty, so free from affectation, that he could not help admiring her simplicity of character. He was not of a particularly inflammable nature, and hitherto had shut his heart to the allurements of the other sex. The ladies with whom he was acquainted, though refined in every sense of the word, annoyed him by their persistent artificiality and their insincerity. But this wild rose was free from such taints, and in her conversation she displayed perfect candour. To Dan she was like the inhabitant of another planet, and she had for him all the charm of novelty. Without being a prophet, he could foresee that a few weeks in her company would chain him for ever to her side. She was ignorant of her power to do this, and in such unconsciousness lay a goodly portion of her fascination. In sober earnest, the girl puzzled him. By her own confession, she haunted the hills from morning till night, and by rights should be an uncouth creature, a female barbarian. Yet her accent and manners were both refined, and she had an evident acquaintance with literature, though not of the newest. Dan supposed that she owed such culture and polish as she possessed to Miss Linisfarne; but if that lady took an interest in her, he could not understand why she permitted the girl to roam the moors and woods at will. It was certain that Meg was in no way conscious of her own beauty, or she would have taken better care of her appearance, her dress, and her complexion. She apparently cared nothing for these things, and let the sun brown her face and the brambles scratch her hands without giving the matter a thought. Such negligence was not without its charm.
After that second meeting, Dan made up his mind to see her again; but though he watched the whole of the next day, he caught not a glimpse of his charmer. He had no excuse for calling on Dr. Merle, else he might have taken advantage of it, and so passed at least a few minutes by her side. It then struck him that Mother Jericho might know her haunts, and he was on his way to the gipsy encampment for the purpose of inquiry, when Fate provided him with an excuse for calling at the doctor’s house. On the path through the pine wood he picked up a red coral necklace which he had noticed her wearing. She had doubtless lost it on one of her excursions.
“Good!” said Dan, slipping it into his pocket; “with this I can call on Dr. Merle and find out more about the huntress. If I introduce myself to the father, he may ask me to renew my visit, though I’m afraid my position does not warrant such a hope. However, I’ll try; at least, I shall see her again.”
Contrary to her promise, Meg had not been near the dell, so Dan supposed that she had told her father of the invitation, and had been forbidden to accept it. When he saw Dr. Merle, this idea was dispelled. No one had less influence over his daughter than her surviving parent. But Dan did not come to this conclusion for some weeks.
The doctor’s house was built of grey stone, and placed as it was among the sombre pines, looked singularly funereal. It was not even enclosed by a fence, nor was there the slightest attempt at cultivating a garden. There it stood, square and gloomy, as though dropped suddenly into that savage solitude. It could be easily seen that the owner had no care for his surroundings.
“If the father is so careless, I do not wonder that the daughter is allowed to run wild,” murmured Dan, as he came in sight of this mausoleum.
There was no bell, and though he knocked hard at the door, it was quite five minutes before it opened. A bent old man, dressed in dingy black, appeared, and, on being questioned, intimated in a surly voice that Meg was at the Court.
“Is Dr. Merle in?”
“A’ be sleeping,” was the crabbed response.
“Then wake him and say that I wish to see him,” said Dan, enraged at this uncivil reception. “Don’t close the door till you have delivered my message.”
Somewhat startled by this determined bearing, so different to that of the meek Farbis folk, the surly Cerberus shuffled away, and returned in a few minutes with the information that the doctor would receive him in his study. Dan followed his guide, who led him into a dark apartment like a cell, and, pushing him in, the man shut the door as though to prevent his escape.
“Well, what is it?” said a querulous voice at the other end of the room. “Why do you come at this hour? Don’t you know it is my time for sleeping?”
“Sleeping at three o’clock!” said Dan, with great astonishment.
There was a rustle in the darkness, and a little man came forward. He did not recognize the voice, but guessing from its refinement that his visitor was a gentleman, he pulled up the blind to see who had thus roused him. A pale light filtered in through the dirty windowpanes, and Dan saw before him a small and neatly made person clothed in a ragged dressing-gown and carpet slippers. He was still handsome, and not more than fifty years of age, but his waxen skin had an unhealthy appearance, as though in want of fresh air and sunlight. His black hair and beard, both streaked with grey, were dishevelled, and his brown eyes had a vacant expression, as though his thoughts were far away. Altogether he did not look the kind of man likely to cure a sick person. Dan towered above him, and as he considered the little figure and the darkened room, he was reminded of Stanley’s account of the African pygmies in their sunless forest.
It took Dr. Merle some time to grasp the fact that his visitor was a stranger, and he peered curiously at him, with one little hand raking his untidy beard. So long did he look without speaking, that Dan felt rather embarrassed, and hardly knew how to begin a conversation. Merle saved him the trouble by speaking first.
“Who are you?” he asked, still in the same querulous voice. “What do you want here? Physic?”
“Never took a drop of physic in my life, sir,” answered Dan, good-humouredly. “As to my name, it is Dan.”
“Dan nothing,” responded the other, with great coolness—“simply Dan. I am camping in the pinewood dell up yonder, and there I picked up this necklace. I think it belongs to your daughter.”
Dr. Merle took the corals and turned them over in a dazed fashion. He seemed to be half asleep, and started peevishly when his visitor’s hearty voice rang through the room. The man’s nervous system was out of order.
“It is Miss Merle’s, is it not?”
“Yes, yes; thank you for bringing it back. I have no doubt she would say the same herself, but that she is with Miss Linisfarne at Farbis Court.”
“In that case I need not wait,” said Dan, turning his back.
The doctor stopped him before he could reach the door.
“Don’t go yet. I see so few people. I should like to have a talk with you.”
Seeing a chance of gaining information about Meg, the young man, nothing loth, sat down. His face was to the light, and Merle, who had shrunk back into the shadow, eyed him curiously.
“You are not a common man,” he said nervously.
“That depends upon what you call common, sir. I certainly don’t swear or get drunk, or wear my hat while in the house, or—”
“Yes, yes! I understand all that. But you are travelling for pleasure?”
“That’s so, sir.”
“An American?” asked the doctor, noting the last reply.
Dan laughed. “No,” he said; “but I have been in the States. No doubt I have picked up a few flowers of American speech.”
“In short, you are a gentleman masquerading under the name of Dan?”
“I don’t think I am bound to answer that question,” replied the other, with marked significance.
Merle apologized at once. “Forgive me for being so curious. I do not seek to know your secret, but my daughter Margaret was talking about you, and I wondered who you were.”
“I hope Miss Merle is well,” said Dan, evading a direct reply.
“She is never ill. Strong as a young colt. That comes of her open-air life.”
“Do you think it is quite safe for her to wander on these moors alone?”
“Of course I do! Every one knows her. I should be sorry for the man who insulted Meg. She can hold her own. Why do you laugh?”
“It seems such a strange up-bringing for a young lady.”
“True, true!” muttered the little doctor, with a frown; “but what can I do? I am very poor. I make barely enough to live. I can do nothing—nothing.”
“But Miss Linisfarne might; she is a rich old maid with no relatives.”
“Miss Linisfarne!” said Merle, in tones of deep sorrow.
“Yes, she might adopt her.”
Dan said the words carelessly enough, and was quite unprepared for their effect on his host. Merle sprang out of his seat. He had grown deadly white, and he seized Dan’s arm with a shaking hand. He looked like a man thoroughly terrified, and could hardly articulate a word.
“Did—did Tim the Tinker—say—say—anything?”
“What do you mean?” asked Dan, with surprise.
Merle looked at him steadily for a moment, and then turned away, wiping his forehead with a hankerchief.
“It’s all right,” Dan overheard him mutter; “he knows nothing—nothing.”
The visitor began to think his host mad or drunk, and arose smartly to his feet for the second time. Again Merle stopped him.
“No, no! Don’t go yet. I am subject to these—these attacks.” Then, with a sudden burst of hospitality, “Won’t you have a glass of wine?”
Dan’s eyes wandered towards the writing-table, on which stood a decanter apparently containing wine.
“Not that—not that,” muttered Merle, hastily putting it in a cupboard; “that is medicine for my attacks.”
He averted his face from Dan, but the young man had already guessed his secret. Shaking hand, glazed eye, retiring manner,—the inference to be drawn from these was only too plain. Dr. Merle was a laudanum-drinker, and the decanter so hurriedly removed contained the fatal drug.
“No, thank you, doctor; I will not take any wine,” he said, disgusted with this discovery. “I must be off at once. Give my respects and the necklace to Miss Merle.”
“You’ll come again?”
“Certainly, in a day or so. Goodbye for the present.”
With a sigh of relief, he found himself again in the open air, and looked back at the dismal house with a shudder.
“Poor girl!” he sighed, thinking of Meg; “what can she do with a father like that? A laudanum-drinker—a dreamer of dreams—a nervous fool. How, in the name of Nature, did he ever come to have that splendid creature as his child? I don’t wonder she wanders about the hills. Anything would be better than that dark room and its unwholesome occupant.”
When he returned to his camp and had despatched his midday meal, Dan had a meditative smoke. There was no chance of his being interrupted, as Tinker Tim had gone on business to a neighbouring hamlet, and Mother Jericho was confined to her tent with rheumatism. It was just as well that he was left to his own thoughts, as he wished to think out the position in which he now found himself. Dan was a very masterful and practical person, and when he came to the conclusion that anything was wrong, always wished to remedy it at once. Not long after he left Merle’s house, he decided that there was something very wrong indeed in the parish of Farbis, and that the something was connected with Meg.
Recalling his conversations with Mother Jericho, Tinker Tim, and the doctor, it seemed to him as though they all had more or less of an understanding with one another. He was satisfied that the gipsies did not know him, and yet it appeared strange that they should be so friendly. Mother Jericho had prophesied that he should meet his fate at the Gates of Dawn. The very next morning he met with Meg. After his fight with Tim, that pugilist had remarked ambiguously, “None other shall have her;” and reading this mystical utterance by the light of recent events, Dan decided that it referred to Meg. Lastly, when he suggested that Miss Linisfarne should adopt the girl, Merle had come out with that curious remark anent Tinker Tim. Taking all these things into consideration, Dan saw a connection between them which seemed to hint at some mystery regarding Meg. This being the case, he also, from the promptings of his heart and the utterances of the gipsies, was implicated in some way unknown to himself.
“They can’t possibly know who I am,” he said, filling a fresh pipe; “no one but Jack knew of my idea of the caravan. I don’t suppose those carriage-builders would say a word. If, then, the old man and the tinker only know me as ‘Dan,’ why are they always hinting and talking about Meg? So far as I can see, they wish me to marry the girl, but for what reason? Merle has an understanding with these vagrants, or he would not have mentioned Tim. And why did he turn pale when I suggested Miss Linisfarne as an adopted mother? There’s something wrong here, I’m certain; but what it is I can’t make out.”
He eyed Peter in an absent manner, and Peter, meeting his eye, began to slink off, thinking he had done something wrong. Dan raised himself with a laugh at Peter’s fears, and called back the conscience-smitten terrier.
“Come here, you fool dog,” he said, catching him by the scruff of the neck; “I wish to talk to you. Sit up and cross your paws, sir.”
Peter, noting a twinkle in his master’s eyes, sat up laboriously and stared meekly in front of him. Having thus procured a listener, Dan addressed him, emphasizing his remarks with the stem of his pipe.
“Peter,” said he solemnly, “I am very much afraid that I take a greater interest in Diana of Farbis than is advisable. I am not in love with her, because a man of thirty is scarcely fool enough to fall in love with a woman he has only seen twice. But I take an interest in her, Peter, because I pity her wasted life. And if you think pity is akin to love, Peter, you think wrongly. This is a matter of head and heart. We had intended to go away to-morrow, Peter; but I have decided to stay and find out what all this is about. I don’t like mysterious gipsies hatching plots against me, and prophesying me into marriage. You and I, Peter, will turn detectives, and ferret out the meaning of these things. Therefore, Peter, as a first step we will go into the village and listen to public opinion concerning Dr. Merle and his daughter. The audience is at an end, you rascal, so sit down.”
Peter dropped like a shot and yawned. He did not understand a word of this long speech. How could he? There was not a word about bones in it from beginning to end. When Dan put on his cap and picked up his stick, the actions were more intelligible to Peter than the previous words, and he whirled frantically before Dan in token of his delight at the prospect of a walk. Simon only tossed his head and looked. He had been down to the seashore that morning, and took no interest in anything save grass. Having thus ascertained the feelings of his four-footed friends, Dan cast a farewell glance around to see that everything was in good order, and strode off, followed by the barking terrier.
All that afternoon Dan pottered about the village. He talked to stray labourers of crops and weather, artfully leading the conversation round to the gentry question; he gossiped with voluble women, on the plea of seeking a laundress for his linen, and learned indirectly their opinion of the doctor. It did not appear to be a very high one.
“Th’ ould doctor bean’t nowt but a sleepy-head,” they said contemptuously. “‘A ain’t vit vur nowt. ‘A gits oop, ‘a lies down—aw ain’t niver no good. That ‘a bean’t!”
From which speeches Dan gathered that Dr. Merle was not highly prized as a physician in Farbis. He stayed in his dismal house and soddened himself with laudanum. His patients resented the little interest he took in them, and proclaimed their views boisterously in broad rural dialect. It took all Dan’s time to fathom the meaning of some of their words.
In process of time he drifted into the Red Deer, more to quench his thirst than for any other reason, but found an unexpected mine of information in the landlord. That worthy brought him a tankard of ale with a jolly smile, and when Dan mentioned casually that he had been to see the doctor, burst out with unlimited information.
“‘A has nowt, zur,” said the host; “‘a stuck-up un, ‘a be.”
“Is he a good doctor?”
“Aw yis! ‘A be mazing clivir, but thur bean’t no use fur un; folk doan’t git ill here. Look at t’ doctor’s lass, measter. She be vine an’ strong.”
“Yes; a splendid-looking girl! Is she not a great friend of Miss Linisfarne?”
The landlord nodded, and went into a long story about Miss Linisfarne’s kindness to Meg. How Dr. Merle had neglected his daughter to shut himself up in seclusion, and how the lady at the Court had taken upon herself to look after the neglected girl. Mr. Jarner, the parson, was also mentioned by the host as one who had interested himself in the matter. He knew more about the gentry than any one else, and had been rector of the place for over a quarter of a century.
Dan cut short the landlord’s eloquence by asking where he could see Mr. Jarner and have a chat with him. He was directed to the vicarage, which was on the other side of the church, and, thinking that it would be as well to have an intelligent person to talk with, went off to seek the rustic divine.
Farbis Church and graveyard were much neglected. The long grass grew nearly as high as the weather-stained tombs, and these in many cases had fallen down. The tower was in a most dilapidated condition, and though it had a clock and Chimes, the first had stopped and the second were silent. An air of mournful decay pervaded the whole place, and it could be easily seen that the present incumbent was not an energetic man. Certainly the place itself was not conducive to work.
Not being pressed for time, Dan did not immediately repair to the vicarage, but sauntered idly through the churchyard, reading the quaint epitaphs, and watching the swallows wheeling round the hoary tower. Judging from the grass-grown pathway from lych-gate to porch, the Farbis folk did not come often to their devotions. The whole village—its wretchedness, its somnolence, its isolation—was typified by the shabby church. It was as though the place had gone to sleep in the Middle Ages, and had not yet been wakened by the tumult of the nineteenth century. Such infinite dreariness made Dan feel wretched.
Not being able to take Peter inside the church, he set him to guard his cap in the porch by way of keeping him quiet. It may be here stated that the front of this cap—which was not the one he usually wore—was embroidered with the arms of Magdalen College, Oxford. Considering his pretence of vagrancy, it was foolish for Dan to decorate himself with so damning a piece of evidence regarding his worldly position. Nevertheless, being busied with his new thoughts of a possible conspiracy, he unthinkingly snatched up the cap before leaving the dell, and thus set Peter to watch it at the church door. Such negligence led to his undoing, and he recognized his carelessness when it was too late.
Quite unaware of what awaited him, he examined the interior of the church, and found it in a similar condition to the graveyard. There were one or two painted windows and a finely carved reredos, but the first were broken in several places, and the second was spoilt by the damp. As usual, there was a collection of mouldy old tombs, which Dan, for reasons of his own, examined with great interest. Among them he found a crusading ancestor of Lord Ardleigh, carved in alabaster, with crossed legs and a formidable sword. Beside him lay Joan, his wife, with prayerful hands and monstrous head-dress. Faded scutcheons bedecked the worn sides of the tomb, and a long Latin oration, which nobody had the patience to decipher, set forth the many virtues of the deceased pair. Poor dead folks, resting so quietly in that dreary church, who thinks of you now?
Afterwards Dan explored the leper chapel near the high altar, where those wretched pariahs heard the blessed mutter of the mass through a chink in the wall. The lepers were gone now, as were crusading lord and lady, and the high altar itself with its gold and silver and tall candles. A plain deal table, covered with a red cloth, whereon were set a cross and two bunches of flowers, did duty for the communion-table. The Vicar of Farbis was evidently in sympathy with Low Church doctrines, for there was no attempt at the sweeping or cleansing or garnishing of the house of prayer.
From the contemplation of these melancholy things he was called to the porch by the furious barking of dogs. He recognized Peter’s voice, and knew that the terrier was in trouble. At the door he found a large burly man thrashing two fox-terriers who had attacked Peter. It was a task of some difficulty, for all three dogs were determined to enjoy themselves. At length Dan picked up Peter by the scruff of the neck, and, assisted by the burly man, kicked away the assailants. When quiet was restored, the two had leisure to examine one another. At a glance Dan recognized the parson, and saw with dismay that he was holding that tell-tale cap with the Magdalen badge.
The Rev. Stephen Jarner was tall and ponderous, with a red face and heavy jowl. To the waist he was a parson in orthodox collar, hat, and coat, but his nether limbs, invested in breeches and high boots, had a decidedly sporting appearance. He was a parson of the old school, fond of a good glass of wine and a well-spread board, but still fonder of dogs and horses. A hunting-crop was tucked under his arm, and the fox-terriers, eyeing Peter in Dan’s embrace, sat at the feet of their clerical master. Dan was much amused at the group.
“Here’s a character,” he thought. “A doctor addicted to opium, a pair of gipsies, a recluse lady, a lovely huntress, and a sporting parson. Decidedly I have got among queer folk!”
In his hand this remarkable-looking cleric still held Dan’s cap. He looked at the badge and nodded his head towards the young man in a friendly fashion.
“So you are a Magdalen man, sir,” said he, in a full rich voice. “I too am of that college. Et ego in Arcadia fui. ‘Addison’s Walk’ by the Cher is dear to me.”
Dan took his cap with a smile. The badge had unmasked him as an Oxonian, so that he could no longer pass himself off as cheap-jack of the caravan.
“Yes, I belonged to Magdalen, sir,” he owned up, stepping out of the porch and covering his head. “Had you not seen this, I would not tell you so much. I am in a different walk of life at present, Mr. Jarner, and my name is Dan.”
The clergyman looked at him with a slightly satirical expression on his full lips, and nodded. He quite understood the significance of the speech.
“Keep your secret, friend Dan. I too have heard the chimes at midnight. You are at a frolicsome age, and why should not a man play the fool when the blood sings in his veins? But within reason—within reason.”
“Pagan sentiments, Mr. Jarner.”
“Pish, my dear sir! The sentiments of every healthy-minded man. So you are Dan? I have heard of you and of your caravan in the dell. Come across and crack a bottle with me.”
“What! port at four o’clock in the afternoon, and after the Red Deer ale? Do you take me for a four-bottle man, sir?”
Jarner cracked his whip at the dogs, who all three set up a barking chorus. Bent upon offering hospitality, he was not to be daunted by the first refusal.
“Then I’ll give you good ale. That won’t hurt you. By St. Beorl who built this church, I must have a chat with you. For thirty years I have been buried here, and not once have I met with a student of my old college. This day shall be marked with a white stone. That is Horace, sir, but I won’t give you the Latin of it, as my classics, like my manners, have become somewhat rusty.”
Considerably diverted by the speech of this hospitable divine, Dan accepted the invitation, and they walked across to the vicarage. The door was wide open, and, followed by the dogs (who evidently had the right of entry), Jarner led his guest into a snug little room filled with old-fashioned furniture. There was a wide casement, in the depths of which was a parlour seat. The fireplace was large and old-fashioned, the shelves round the walls were filled with books in a more or less tattered condition, and there was a mahogany table ringed over with the bottoms of tumblers. Evidently that table had seen some hard drinking in the long winter nights. Over all there was a jovial air of untidy hospitality. Even before he spoke, Dan guessed that his new friend was unmarried. That parlour was eloquent of the absence of the female element at the vicarage.
“Bachelor Hall, sir,” said the parson, casting hat and hunting-crop into a corner. “Sit in that chair by the window. It is the most comfortable, and is only permitted to be used by favoured guests.”
“And why am I thus favoured?” replied Dan, dropping into a chair.
“Because you are a nursling of Magdalen, sir,” thundered the divine, with a laugh on his jolly red face. “There is Alma Mater herself over the fireplace—the quadrangle, and the tower askew. Ah me!” continued he, shaking his head pensively at the picture, “what days those were thirty years ago! Where are all the good fellows with whom I consorted in the time when Plancus was consul, and still— But here comes the ale, Dan! Let me froth you a tankard, and we’ll drink to the old college, sir, and to our better acquaintance.”
Not feeling equal to the task of emptying the silver pot presented to him, Dan bravely drank half, but Jarner did not set down his tankard till it was empty. Then he sighed, thumped himself with vigour, and nodded towards the mantelpiece.
“Try a churchwarden,” said he, persuasively.
“Thank you, sir, I’ll stick to my briar,” answered Dan; and each having chosen his pipe, they smoked amicably together.
“Briars smoke sweet,” observed the former, using his little finger as a stopper, “but to my mind they don’t come up to a churchwarden. I always smoke churchwardens, for,” he added, with a twinkle in his little eyes, “being a clergyman, it is but right that I should affect a pipe with a clerical name.”
As in duty bound, Dan laughed at the old gentleman’s joke, and then began to put cautious questions with a view to finding out all he could about Meg and her father. Jarner was very communicative, and replied frankly. The discovery that Dan was an Oxonian like himself warmed his heart towards the young fellow, and he did not regard him quite in the light of a stranger, though he knew nothing about him. Dan might have been an unconscionable scamp, and Jarner would not have seen through him. He was a simple, kindly old fellow, in spite of his strong ale and terriers and bluster. See, then, what freemasonry there is in Oxonianism. A coined word is necessary here, as no other can adequately describe the parson’s attitude towards the tramp.
“You have lived here for thirty years, Mr. Jarner?”
“For thirty years, sir. I have charge of three parishes within a radius of twenty miles, and ride over to preach in one of them every second and third Sunday; the first I keep for Farbis.”
“How do the people live in this outlandish place?”
“By weaving. Have you not seen the looms at work in the cottages?”
“Well, yes; but I did not—”
“See how inobservant is youth!” laughed Jarner, filling himself another tankard. “Don’t be alarmed at my thirst, young man. I have been in the saddle for five hours to-day, over the hills at Silkon, where I met a friend of yours.”
“Indeed! I didn’t know I had friends here.”
“Pooh! What about Tinker Tim? He is a warm admirer of you, sir, and thinks you a pretty light-weight fighter. Tim gave me a description of your battle in the dell. It was glorious—glorious! I should like to have been present.”
“Come to my camp, then, and I’ll put on the gloves with you.”
“Not me—not me!” said Parson Jarner, wagging his large head. “Too old; and besides, I’m a vicar—must respect the cloth, young man!”
“Well, to continue about Farbis. How do they get their bales of cloth away?”
“There’s a road over the hills by Farbis Court. The weavers here are a poor lot, and an infernally irreligious set. God forgive me for swearing!”
“They seem healthy enough.”
“Oh yes! The air is good. They don’t bother the doctor much.”
“Dr. Merle! I saw him the other day.”
Jarner faced round suddenly with a grave look on his face.
“What do you think of him?” he asked doubtfully.
“I think it is a pity he doesn’t take example by De Quincey, and put away that decanter.”
“Oh, you saw that, did you? You have sharp eyes, young man. Yes, yes! it’s a great pity. I’ve tried to break him off that laudanum-drinking, but it’s no use; the man’s a slave to the vice. I’ve straightened him out a dozen times, and he always doubles up again. Lord forbid that I should speak ill of my fellow-creatures, but Richard Merle’s a poor white mouse of a creature!”
“It is more than his daughter is.”
“Ta, ta! Hey! Have you met her?”
“Two or three days ago.”
“She is a fine girl, sir. As honest and simple as can be. I am a hardened old bachelor, Dan, but my heart aches for the future of that poor creature.”
“Pooh, pooh! Tush! Don’t talk to me, sir. He is worse than useless. The girl would have been ruined body and soul had she trusted to his fatherly care. I can say, without praising myself and Miss Linisfarne, that we have done our best for her. She is a noble creature, sir,” continued the parson, vehemently, “and should be the mother of brave men and chaste women. But there, there! in this waste corner of the earth who is there to mate with her?”
He sighed and finished his beer, then continued his speech after such pause.
“I have often thought of asking Miss Linisfarne to take the lass to London and aid her to—”
“No, no!” interrupted Dan, smartly, “do not let her go to town. A season would spoil her. It would destroy her charm of simplicity and candour. Believe me, my dear Mr. Jarner, it is best to let this woodland flower bloom here, and not to thrust it into the hothouse of an artificial civilization.”
“You take a great interest in the young lady, sir,” said Jarner, dryly.
“Do you think so, sir? It is pure philanthropy on my part, I assure you.”
Jarner looked steadily at him, but Dan met his eyes with so frank a face that he seemed satisfied of the young man’s intentions. Nevertheless he tapped his breast meaningly.
“Don’t lose that, sir! Take care—take care!”
“If you mean my heart, Mr. Jarner, there is no danger of my being so foolish. I can look after myself, and so can she. But to speak in a more general way—do you know if Dr. Merle has any dealings with Tim the Tinker?”
“No, I can’t say that I do. Why do you couple their names together, young man?”
Dan meditated a few moments before replying. He was not prepared to communicate his suspicions to Jarner until he knew more about him. Unlike the confiding country divine, this haunter of cities was more cautious in unfolding himself to a new acquaintance.
“I cannot answer your question at present, Mr. Jarner,” he said at length, with some hesitancy; “but if you will do me the honour to visit my camp, I will explain myself, and ask your opinion on a certain matter.”
“Does it concern Meg?” asked Jarner, rendered serious by this speech.
“Yes; it concerns Meg and—myself. No! pray don’t ask me if I am in love with her. To-morrow I will tell you all.”
“At what hour shall I come?”
“Say at noon. I am generally alone at that hour.”
Jarner accepted the invitation, and shook hands with his strange guest. Politeness forbade him to ask questions, else he might have done so. The whole tone of Dan’s conversation was so mysterious that the simple gentleman was greatly puzzled and disturbed.
The house built on the side of the hill was a dreary-looking place, standing in a park of no very great extent. Gloomy pine-woods rose above it, and the grounds appertaining to the mansion stretched below in a gentle slope towards the village. So sheltered was the park from sea-winds by reason of the depression of the ground, that therein flourished quite a forest in wild luxuriance. Oak, and sycamore, and beech, and elm, all lifted their giant boughs in the genial atmosphere, and formed a wood round the Court similar to that said to have environed the palace of the Sleeping Beauty. It was almost as impenetrable, and quite as wild in growth.
Here the fecundation of Nature went on incessantly, unrestrained by the hand of man. Nothing was kept within bounds; so, untended and untouched, the forest—for, though of limited extent, it could be called by no other name—relapsed into its wild state. The trees crowded so thickly together that they almost excluded the sunlight. Parasites grew unchecked round the aged boles; wan grasses, uncoloured by the sun, sprang high and thick; while groves of saplings made the wood well-nigh impassable. Wild creatures dwelt in the undergrowth, undisturbed by sportsman or poacher, and overhead flocks of birds made the forest musical from sunrise to sunset. Here and there spread stagnant pools of water, choked with weeds, and almost hidden by broad-leaved lilies. And there were winding paths, overgrown with moss and grass, blocked by fallen tree-trunks, and barred to the most resolute pioneer by brushwood and tangled briars. Desolation ruled supreme throughout the deserted domain.
From the rusty iron gates at the termination of the avenue up to the house itself stretched this jungle, and egress could only be obtained by means of the carriage-drive, which was in fairly good repair. Woods, and lawns, and flowerbeds, and paths were allowed to go to rack and ruin. For half a century Nature had done as she liked, with the result that Farbis Park became a wilderness. Only in tropical Africa could such savagery be paralleled.
Nor was the house much better as regards care. Its long façade of red brick was reared on a substructure of terraces, whence wide flights of steps led downward to neglected lawn and gloomy forest. The trees had almost pushed their way to the balustrade of the terrace, and looked as though anxious to stifle the mansion in their close embrace. There were ranges of staring windows, turrets and gables and towers, sloping roofs and twisted chimney-stacks. Moss grew in the chinks of the bricks, many of the windows were broken, and here and there a crazy shutter swung noisily by one hinge. The coat of arms over the porch was mouldering and defaced; the steps leading to the iron-bound door were broken and timeworn. But that smoke issued from the chimneys in the daytime, and that lights gleamed from the windows by night, one would have deemed the great mansion uninhabited. Yet Miss Linisfarne dwelt therein. But her existence was one of more than conventual seclusion, and she herself decayed with the decaying woods and house.
Long since had the Farbis folk ceased to wonder who she was, and why she had buried herself in so lonely a dwelling. Many of the villagers remembered that stormy December day, more than twenty years ago, when a travelling carriage crossed the moors, and brought a handsome young woman to that ill-omened house. From the time she arrived at Farbis, Miss Linisfarne had never left it again, but dwelt at the Court in solitary state, unfriended, almost unvisited. Parson Jarner and Meg were alone permitted to cross her threshold. No villager was invited to the kitchen of Farbis Court, nor did the servants mix with those who dwelt without the gates. It was surmised that there was some mystery connected with the persistent seclusion of Miss Linisfarne, but no one was clever enough to guess what the mystery might be. The general opinion was that the tenant of the Court had committed a crime, and had of her own free will condemned herself to a solitary life in expiation thereof. But this was a mere rumour, and unsupported by facts.
If, as it was hinted, Parson Jarner knew the reason for this penitential life, never by word, or deed, or look did he reveal such unholy knowledge. No Sphinx could be more secretive than this simple divine when it so pleased him, therefore the villagers had little chance of having their curiosity gratified in that direction. The vicar paid frequent visits to the recluse, and always returned therefrom with a meditative air and frowning brow. His flock wondered at this, wondered at Miss Linisfarne’s seclusion, wondered at everything connected with the Court, till after the lapse of a decade the novelty of the thing wore itself out, and they ceased wondering altogether. Yet they were constantly on the watch for the happening of some untoward event, and hoped, not without reason, to some day know the truth.
Miss Linisfarne, being an invalid, was usually confined to one apartment—a great drawing-room which overlooked the terrace. During the early years of her exile—for so she termed it—she had enjoyed perfect health, and then drove frequently through the village on her way up the winding road to the moors. She had even strolled about the park, in those places where the savage wildness of the place permitted her to walk with comparative ease. Now all was changed. She never went beyond the gates, nor did she walk in the grounds, but when not lying on her couch, paced languidly up and down the terrace, or, if the weather was bad, exercised her feeble limbs in the picture-gallery. Can you conceive a more pitiful picture than that of this lonely figure wandering through the corridors, and galleries, and vast rooms of this desolate house?
With such a tenant dwelling amid such surroundings, it was little to be wondered at that the Court gained the reputation of being haunted. Miss Linisfarne was reported to be wealthy, but not all the treasures of Solomon would have tempted a Farbis man to penetrate the mansion after dark. And this same superstition preserved the Court from the intrusion of the villagers either as visitors, beggars, or burglars. They dreaded even to pass the gates after dusk, and with fertile imagination began to weave strange stories of the lonely lady in the lonely house. Parson Jarner discouraged these tales, and reproved the tellers, but notwithstanding his prohibition, Farbis folk still held to their opinions. They declared that the Court was haunted, that Miss Linisfarne was a witch, that orgies were held in the empty rooms at midnight, and that cries of tortured women and of dying men could be heard at night. With such fancies did the villagers beguile the winter evenings over their fires. Superstition was strangely ingrained in the nature of the Farbis folk, and all Parson Jarner’s arguments failed to eradicate their deeply rooted beliefs.
The drawing-room, wherein Miss Linisfarne was generally to be found, was a vast apartment in the right-hand corner of the house. Eight French windows opened on to the front terrace, and five oriels at the side overlooked a sea of green, for here the forest rolled its leafy waves up to the very walls of the mansion. This apartment possessed a polished floor, which was strewn with bright-hued mats from the looms of Ispahan. Scattered sparsely through the room were chairs with cushions of faded satin, oval tables of rosewood and walnut, laden with books long since out of print; also with strange carvings in ivory by Chinese artificers, pots of dried rose-leaves, and glass-shaded wax flowers. Sofas of classical shape, designed during the first Empire of France, were stiffly set against the walls. Overhead the oval roof was frescoed with paintings of mythological subjects, and on the walls hung dark oil pictures and gilt-framed mirrors. Faded curtains draped the windows, and so excluded the light that the vast room was constantly filled with shadows. Over all lay the grey dust undisturbed for years. It was an eerie-looking place, and there was something terrifying about the large hollow empty space. Ghosts only could fitly inhabit its gloom and desolation.
Near one of the oriel windows Miss Linisfarne lay on her couch. Here there was an attempt at comfort. A square of carpet faced the sofa, and was met at its outer borders by a gaudy Japanese screen, which converted the spot into a tiny room. A work-table stood close at hand, and near it an armchair was placed, while a revolving bookcase gave a touch of modernity to the nook. Here, in this oasis of comfort, Miss Linisfarne worked, and read, and fretted, and thought. It was at once her home and her prison.
At times her hands would fall idly on her lap, and her eyes would wander from book or work to gaze out of the oriel at the green ocean of trees which isolated her dwelling. God alone knows what were her thoughts during those melancholy musings. Of nothing bright, you may be sure, for Mariana in her Moated Grange was less solitary than this woman with the sad eyes. A cloud of mystery, of dread, of horror, hung over the house and its occupant. No wonder the superstitious villagers avoided the unholy spot. House and women were accursed.
Look at her as she lies there, with the light of the afternoon on her countenance. Can you not see how she has suffered—how mental torture has worn her face thin; how it has imprinted lines upon her brow, and laced her golden hair with threads of grey? She can count but forty-seven years, and yet she is an aged woman; for grief is even more powerful to destroy than time. The light has long since left those mournful eyes, the roses have long since faded from those worn cheeks, and the mouth is now set in fretful lines which were not there in early days. The features alone retain their beauty. Her straight nose, curved lips, firmly moulded chin, and high forehead are as if carved in ivory, for long seclusion from fresh air and tinting sunlight has imparted a yellowish hue to the skin. And the countless wrinkles round the mouth, under the eyes, and across the forehead, tell their own tale of mental agonies, of tearful hours, of sleepless nights. Sorrow had set her unmistakable seal on the face, and had rendered it haggard before its time. Wan countenance, inert figure, listless hands, and hopeless looks—a mournful spectacle this of sadness and despair.
Yet she was still careful of her dress. No fault could be found with the grey silk tea-gown, adorned with lace at wrists and throat, or with the dainty slipper on the slender foot. Grey as was her hair, yet the undying coquetry of the feminine nature impelled her to coil it smoothly, and scatter it in crisp curls. When her hands moved, diamond rings glittered on the fingers, and her lean wrists were encircled with costly bracelets. She was aged before her time, she was lonely, she was filled with despair; but the woman in her still bade her tire her head, deck herself with gems, clothe herself in rich garments, and make the most of what was left to her.
Meg sat in the armchair close to the couch. A greater contrast than the exuberant vitality of this girl, beside the etiolated looks of the elder woman, can scarcely be imagined. Bright eyes, rosy cheeks, restless hands—there was life in every movement; while Miss Linisfarne, listless and weary, looked as though the blood were stagnant in her veins. The girl still wore her rough serge dress, and her heavily shod feet looked clumsy beside the dainty slimness of Miss Linisfarne’s slippers. Her hair was roughened by the wind, her hands were brown and scarred, and she spoke in a clear hearty voice, which contrasted strongly with the faint tones of her hostess. She brought into the room a breath of the woodlands, an odour of earth, of pine, of salt wave, and breezy down. Her very presence seemed to invigorate the pale invalid, who looked at her so kindly. As Antæus drew vigour from his parent earth, so did Miss Linisfarne draw fresh vitality from the animal healthfulness of her visitor.
They were talking together on an interesting subject, and as the conversation went on, a flush crept into the cheeks of the elder woman, her eyes grew brighter, and her lips parted in a faint smile. The vitality diffused by Meg stirred the blood in her veins, and quickened the wan life to a semblance of health. So might Eurydice have regained health and life and sprightliness with every step she took from the kingdom of the dead.
“So I gave him one of the rabbits,” said Meg, concluding a long story of which Dan was the hero, “and he took it to his camp.”
“As a matter of fact, you provided his dinner,” observed Miss Linisfarne, languidly. So far she had not taken much interest in the story.
“I suppose so. Dan said he was fond of stewed rabbit.”
“No doubt. All gipsies are.”
“But Dan is not a gipsy!” said the girl, laughing. “He tries to be one, but fails. He is a gentleman.”
“My poor child, you must be making a mistake,” replied the elder lady, in a pitying tone. “Gentlemen do not travel in caravans, or take rabbits from unknown young women.”
“This one does, Miss Linisfarne. I am sure I am right. Dan is a gentleman, and a very handsome one too.”
“Handsome!” echoed Miss Linisfarne, with a flush. “You did not tell me that, Meg. Describe his looks.”
“He is tall, with brown hair and moustache. His eyes are of a dark grey, and laugh with his lips. He is,” said Meg, concluding this feminine description with a feminine epithet such as is to be found in the novels of the gentle sex—“he is a Greek god.”
“A most attractive person, according to your description. Are you sure your enthusiasm does not carry you away? For all I know, he may not be a bit better-looking than Parson Jarner. He also is a Greek god, though more like Silenus than Apollo.”
“Parson Jarner!” echoed Meg, in a tone of ineffable contempt. “Why, he is as old as old can be, and as red in the face and white in the hair as anything! Dan is really good-looking, like—like—oh,” she cried, breaking off suddenly with a twinkle in her eyes, “I know who he is like.”
“What is the matter, child?”
“Would you care to see Dan?”
Miss Linisfarne shrank back on her couch with a quick sigh, and covered her face with her hands.
“No! no!” she said in a low whisper; “how can you ask such a thing, child? I have seen no one but Mr. Jarner for years and years. I am dead—I am buried—I am forgotten. Do not bring a stranger to my sepulchre. Even this common wanderer must not see me as the wreck I am.”
Rather startled by this outburst, which she was far from expecting, Meg arose to her feet and bent over the couch with a pretty expression of penitence in her eyes. Gently she removed the hands hiding the face of her hostess.
“You do not understand—you do not understand! It is not Dan himself I would show you, but his portrait.”
“His portrait!” repeated Miss Linisfarne, in blank astonishment. “Are you out of your mind, Meg?”
“Come with me to the picture-gallery, and I will show you the portrait of Dan.”
Much bewildered by this invitation, Miss Linisfarne mechanically arose from the couch and linked her arm with that of Meg. She had not the remotest idea of what the girl meant to do, and so yielded to her curiosity. That the picture of a vagrant should be in Farbis Court picture-gallery seemed incredible. No portraits but those of the Breels hung there; and unless one of them had come to life again, she by no means understood how Meg intended to fulfil her promise.
“You foolish child!” she said, with a low laugh. “This is some trick.”
“No, it is not. Come to the picture-gallery, and I will show you Dan.”
Thus adjured, Miss Linisfarne, leaning on Meg’s shoulder, passed beyond the screen and across the polished floor of the room. They entered the hall, and slowly ascended the wide staircase. Miss Linisfarne was by no means strong, and, even with the assistance of her vigorous guest, found it impossible to move otherwise than at a snail’s pace. At length they reached the gallery, which extended the whole length of the east wing, and here Meg paused before a portrait.
“There!” she said, clapping her hands and laughing gaily, “that is Dan. The picture was painted three hundred years ago, but it is my caravan-owner for all that!”
Miss Linisfarne looked steadily at the picture, which represented a handsome young man in Elizabethan costume. His face was, indeed, very like that of Dan, though naturally Miss Linisfarne was ignorant of such resemblance. Masterful look, firm lips, bold eyes—it was as though the painter of the portrait had transferred to his canvas the features of the vagrant.
The more Meg looked at it, the more marked seemed the resemblance, and she glanced at Miss Linisfarne with a mischievous smile.
“It is Dan,” she repeated; “or else Dan is the ghost of Sir Alurde.”
“Sir Alurde is the original of this portrait, I know,” said Miss Linisfarne; “but I am ignorant by what means a vagabond comes to resemble one of the proudest courtiers of Elizabeth. Are you sure the man you speak of resembles Sir Alurde?”
“I am certain. See, here is a pencil-portrait, drawn from memory.”
She handed it to Miss Linisfarne, who glanced at it for a moment, and then looked around with a sigh of fatigue.
“Bring me a chair, Meg, and place it before Sir Alurde’s portrait. Thank you, child. I soon grow weary if I keep on my feet. Is this Dan’s picture?”
“It is certainly very like the Elizabethan. But, as you have seen Sir Alurde’s face some hundreds of times, and this vagabond’s but once, I fancy you must unconsciously have drawn the countenance of the former.”
“No; I have drawn Dan’s face. It is true,” added Meg, demurely—“it is true that I have only spoken once to Sir Alurde’s double, but I have seen him at least a dozen times. Often and often I have been hidden in the pine trees above his dell, and looked down on him without his knowing I was there. And sometimes I have sung songs and led him a dance through the wood, like Puck did the Athenian lovers. You yourself, Miss Linisfarne, said that I was quick at catching a likeness; and if that sketch is not as like Dan as Sir Alurde is like him, then call me—well, anything you please.”
“You foolish, foolish child!” said Miss Linisfarne, letting the sketch fall on her lap. “How can you indulge in such wild ways? Do you not know that you are twenty years of age, and must not act like an uneducated rustic?”
“I am a rustic,” replied Meg, smiling—“but not uneducated, thanks to you and Mr. Jarner. Oh,” she continued, laughing at the recollection, “if you only had seen his face when I spoke like the villagers! He nearly fainted with surprise and horror.”
“I don’t wonder at it,” said Miss Linisfarne, severely. “You have no business to play such tricks. If this man is a gentleman, which I can hardly believe, he must have been shocked at your illiterate speech.”
“He was—very much shocked,” assented Miss Merle, readily; “but I only spoke half a dozen words in the style of Audrey. Afterwards my language was most correct.”
“What did you converse about, child?”
“I am afraid we talked nonsense! But as it was our first meeting, you can hardly wonder at that. He asked me to visit him in his dell.”
“You did not accept his invitation?”
“Yes, I did! Why not? There is no harm in going there.”
The elder lady was nonplussed for the moment. Meg was so innocent and unsophisticated that it was really a matter of difficulty to set her right on some points. Miss Linisfarne did not wish to suggest anything detrimental to the character of the vagrant, if only because she did not think it advisable to put ideas into the mind of her protégée which were not there already. She therefore evaded a direct reply, and spoke lightly, as though the matter were of no consequence.
“My dear child, you must take care of your heart,” she said, with forced gaiety. “I cannot have you falling in love with the first handsome scamp who comes to Farbis.”
“I fall in love!” laughed Meg. “What a funny idea! I don’t think Dan is the kind of young man with whom I would fall in love. And then,” she added reflectively, “I don’t know what love is.”
“I hope you never will know,” said Miss Linisfarne, vehemently. “Keep your heart free while you may, child. Love is a sweet poison which brings nothing but pain. Love!” she added, with a bitter laugh, “it is a curse—a curse, child, and not a blessing.”
“Were you ever in love, Miss Linisfarne?”
The lady looked at the bright young creature before her, and a greyish pallor overspread her face. For some moments, as if not grasping the full purport of the question, she remained silent. When she did speak it was in a low dreamy voice, as though her thoughts were far away.
“Yes, child! I loved once, but it led to nothing but madness and despair. He was a god in my eyes, as this vagrant is in yours. But his noble looks hid a base soul. He lied and plotted, and made me what I am. For his sake have I been condemned to this living tomb for these long, long, dreary years. I was young and fair when I came here. Look at me now—look at me now!”
Overmastered by her passion, she rose to her feet and clenched her hands in impotent rage. Anger gave her momentary strength, and she paced up and down the long gallery like a panther in its cage.
“There is no honour, no justice, no love, in this world!” she cried in a fierce voice. “Those who say there are such things lie. Who knows that better than I? To be tricked and betrayed and rendered unhappy—that is the lot of women. There is no hope for me—no escape. As I sowed, so have I reaped; and plentiful—plentiful has been the harvest of my sins. Child, child! go not near this man. Avoid him as you would a viper. If you neglect my warning—”
She raised her hands in menace and looked at the girl. Something in Meg’s face arrested the fury of her passion, and, letting her arms fall, she returned to her chair. It was not her duty to give Meg to eat of the tree of knowledge, and she abruptly stopped those confessions which hinted at sin and punishment.
“Don’t heed me, child—don’t heed me,” she said feverishly. “I talk at random. Bring this man here and let me see him. I will then be able to tell you if he is as you think. But I doubt it—I doubt it.”
“Will you see him, Miss Linisfarne?”
“No, no! Bring him to this gallery. I dare not speak to him face to face, but view him from a distance. That will be sufficient for me! I love you, Meg, as though you were my own child, and would not have your heart tortured as mine has been. There, there! Go, child—go! Leave me here; I wish to be alone.”
Meg bent over her for a moment and kissed her cold forehead, then flitted rapidly away in obedience to the order. When her footsteps died away, Miss Linisfarne lifted her haggard face, and, clinging to the wall, advanced a few steps to where a mirror was placed. This gave back the reflection of a pale face, grey hair, and eyes filled with anguish. At the sight a moan escaped from her lips.
“Oh, my lost beauty!” she sobbed; “oh, my lost beauty!”
If Dan was disposed to envy the open-air life of the Romany, he certainly felt that there were drawbacks to such an existence. This other view of the question impressed itself forcibly on his mind as he sat in Mother Jericho’s tent and heard the rain drumming on the roof. It was a rainy night, and the gipsies were all under shelter, though their wretched tents afforded but a poor protection against the rain. Through the chinks of the canvas the water persistently dripped, and formed little puddles on the floor. Mother Jericho, desirous of warmth, had lighted a fire at the door of her abode, and this filled the tent with acrid smoke. The flap at the entrance was fastened back to do away with this nuisance, but the entering wind drove the smoke inward, and made the inmates cough and rub their smarting eyes.
Dan was the only guest, as Tim was absent from the camp. He had been away with his cart and donkey for two days, much to the regret of Dan, who wished particularly to see him. Indeed, it was principally on this account that he had left his comfortable waterproof caravan on this wild night and had come down to the gipsy camp. Anxious to question the tinker concerning his connection with Dr. Merle, the vagrant sought an interview, but, to his disappointment, found no one in the tent but Mother Jericho. The old lady welcomed him in a wheezy voice, and offered him the hospitality of her smoky abode. Dan accepted, as, in default of Tim, he thought he might pick up a few scraps of information from the old gipsy. In this he was mistaken. Mother Jericho was as close as an oyster when it so pleased her.
The other gipsies—a dozen in all—were huddled in two caravans, and were more comfortable than the head of the tribe. She, a conservative Romany, preferred the privacy of her own tent to the innovation of sheltering under a tin roof, and coughed and choked over her own particular fire. It was a pitiful spectacle to see this old woman crouching over a few embers in the vain hope of getting warm. Dan pitied her greatly, and said as much when under shelter. To his surprise, his sympathy was received with anything but gratitude.
“I’m well enough, dearie,” croaked Mother Jericho, piling on more sticks. “Bless ye, young man, I’m used to this. I can’t abear to be cooped up in a Gorgio house. Hawks and eagles don’t roost in farmyards, as I knows of.”
Dan put a corner of his coat over the shivering Peter who was curled up beside him, and wondered how the old creature could exist amid such wretched surroundings. For the moment he forgot that ardent love of liberty which is the strongest characteristic of the gipsies, and which to them is ample compensation for the miseries which they endure in their wandering existence. In Mother Jericho he saw no romantic queen of a wild race, but merely a frail old woman who should be bestowed in an almshouse, where she could be looked after and protected from want and cold. Such comfort would have been more unpalatable to her than leaky tent and smoky fire.
“Wouldn’t you like to have a good house and a little money?” he said persuasively, revolving philanthropic schemes for the bettering of her misery.
“Young man, I have money,” replied Mother Jericho, with great dignity. “I could buy a caravan if I chose, but the tent’s good enough for me. I was born in one, dearie, I’ve lived all my life in one, and I’ll die in a tent.”
“But you would be more comfortable in a house.”
“No, dearie, no! It ‘ud kill me.”
“But this,” said Dan, rubbing his eyes, which smarted with the pungent smoke—“this is worse. You can’t live here. It will kill you.”
“I’ve lived like this for eighty years, child, and it’s not at my time of life that folks change. You are a Gorgio gentleman, and like to live in a fine house; I am a Romany, and the tent is my home.”
“Are you happy?”
“Quite happy, dearie—quite happy, though I don’t deny as my pipe wants filling.”
Willing to alleviate her discomfort in some small degree, Dan gave her a fill of tobacco, and she was soon adding more smoke to the already foggy atmosphere. When she spoke her voice sounded as from a cloud, for Dan could not even catch a glimpse of her face, so thickly rolled the blinding smoke between them.
“That’s better, dearie—much better,” piped the voice from the cloud. “Wha-a! there ain’t nothing like terbaccer for comfort—unless,” added she artfully, “it’s summat to warm the inside.”
Interpreting this hint in its right sense, Dan passed along his flask, and heard her smacking her withered lips over the whisky. He wished to soften her heart before asking questions; and having, as he thought, done so by these gifts, proceeded to business. Dan was not without diplomacy, but it proved worthless in this instance.
“I thought Tim would be back to-night,” said he, replacing the flask in his pocket.
“Did ye, now?” whined Mother Jericho, crossly. “Well, he ain’t. He’s with the Hernes for a day, dearie. When he comes back I’ll tell him ye asked for him.”
“When will he come back?”
“To-morrow, or the next day, young man. Why d’ye want to see him?”
“Just for companionship. It’s lonely up at the dell.”
A grunt proceeding from the smoke showed that Mother Jericho did not put much faith in this assertion. After poking the fire, she spoke again.
“Company ye want, child! Haven’t ye better company nor the poor gipsies?”
“No; I have no one to speak to.”
“Tim said ye met her at the Gates of Dawn.”
“Oh, the lady of your prophecy,” said Dan, lightly. “Yes, I certainly did meet her; but I can hardly ask a young lady like Miss Merle to visit me.”
“Ho!” croaked Mother Jericho, maliciously, “ye’ll have enough of her some day.”
“Pish! I don’t believe in your prophecy. I choose my wife for myself, not at your bidding.”
“Fate is stronger than either of us, rye! I read your fortune in your hand, in the stars, and by the cards—”
“Well?” said Dan, seeing she had not completed the sentence.
“Well,” echoed the old woman, “they all agree. Two women shall love ye, and ye shall love one—the first you met.”
“That means Meg! She is beautiful enough to make any man love her, but as yet my heart is untouched.”
“Ho, ho, young man! I’m not blind.”
Not caring to argue the question, Dan shifted his ground.
“Who is the other woman?”
“You’ll meet her at the hour. She ain’t far off. Fire and flame and brave deeds,” continued she, dreamily. “A fine skein Fate reels off for ye, my son.”
“You seem to have arranged everything ahead,” said Dan, pointedly.
“No, dearie, no! It is written.”
“Indeed! Then what has Dr. Merle to do with it?”
The question evidently took the old creature somewhat aback, for she did not answer immediately. When she again took part in the conversation, it was to feign a stupidity for the purpose of evading a direct reply.
“Dearie me! How my head do swim! Was it Dr. Merle ye talked of just now, young man?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Bless ye, child, what would I do running arter a Gentile doctor? When I aches or pains, I brew my own drinks from herb and root.”
“You must have seen him, at all events,” persisted Dan, taking no notice of her evasion.
“Oh yes, I’ve seen him. He is only a child. D’ye call him a man?”
“No, I don’t. He is a slave to his vice.”
“Fond of drinking, ain’t he, dearie?” croaked Mother Jericho; “and it ain’t whisky, nor gin, nor rum. No, no! I’ve heard of those brews which lift the soul from the body, and set it floatin’ on golden seas. Bless ye, dearie, I have juice of a plant which can make you dream yourself into a kingdom. Ay, ay! ‘Beasts of the field are ye,’ say the Gentiles; but Mother Jericho and her Romany children know secrets of great power.”
There was evidently nothing to be learned from this cunning old woman, who maundered on about magic ceremonies and subtle arts without again touching on the subject of Merle. Vexed by his ill success, Dan clapped his hands smartly together to rouse her from such dreams, and spoke sharply and to the point.
“Listen to me, mother. You and Tim and Dr. Merle have some scheme in your heads which concerns me.”
“May I die, young man, if I ever set eyes on you afore you came to Farbis.”
“That is not the question. For purposes of your own, you wish me to marry this Meg Merle.”
“Not I, dearie, nor Tim, nor the Gorgio. It’s Fate, my rover.”
“I don’t believe in Fate.”
“So ye said before, my blade. But the day will come when ye’ll think of the poor gipsy-woman and her wise words.”
“Pshaw! You are trying to evade an answer. Who is Meg Merle?”
“Hey? Speak up, young man; I’m deaf.”
“You obstinate old creature!” muttered Dan, savagely. “Who is Meg Merle?”
“Not so loud, dearie—not so loud! I hates such hollering. The young gentlewoman is a child of the Gentile doctor.”
“I know that, but—”
“Then why d’ye ask? You have forgot your manners.”
She was evidently determined to say nothing, yet Dan felt convinced from her manner that she knew more than he did about Merle and Meg. All else failing, he tried bribery, and slipped half a crown into her hand.
“Tell me what secrets there are between Tinker Tim and the doctor.”
“Secrets, dearie! How should I know? Ask them as has secrets to tell ‘em, not poor old Mother Jericho as hasn’t. Bless ye for a good young man! This silver will bring ye luck.”
“I wish it would bring me information,” said Dan, annoyed by the failure. “Good night, mother.”
“Are ye going, dearie? Good night. I send fine dreams along wi’ ye.”
Dan was too angry to thank her for the gift, and, swinging his lantern, marched out of the tent, followed by Peter. The provoking old creature chuckled as he disappeared, and piled fresh wood on the fire.
“If ye want riddles read, young man, you must pay in gold. Silver!” she said, with great contempt. “A curse go with him for a greedy Gentile!”
All that night it rained heavily, but Dan woke next morning to find that the clouds had dispersed. He was later than usual, and the sun was already over the rim of the sea. The dell was chilly and dripping with damp, while the ground was moist, and the pine trees were of a fresh green hue. In the silent hours the world had been thoroughly cleansed, and there was a new vigour in the air which caused the blood to speed more rapidly through his veins. The rain had drawn perfumes from the bosom of the earth, and the dell smelt like a garden of spices, and smoked with vapour like a sacrificial altar.
Having taken the precaution to keep some wood in his caravan, he soon had a brisk fire burning, and forthwith proceeded to prepare breakfast. Owing to the lateness of the hour, and a timely remembrance that the heavy rains probably rendered the paths too slippery for Simon, he did not go down for his usual swim, but pottered about till noon, at which time he expected the vicar. To do honour to his guest, Dan made due preparation, and when the sun was up over the backbone of the ridge, found that there was nothing wanting save the presence of his visitor. His occupation being thus gone, he sat on a log beside his fire, and meditated over a pipe concerning the conversation of the previous night. There were many things to consider touching his position.
So far he had not advanced one step in proving that his doubts had any foundation in fact. If there was any understanding between the gipsies and Dr. Merle—if Miss Linisfarne was connected at all with the affair—he could not decide without proof, and proof there was none. He felt sure that Mother Jericho held the key to the riddle which so perplexed him, but she was too cunning to reveal aught likely to be of use in elucidating the mystery. At times Dan felt disposed to think that his fears were groundless, that he was making a mountain out of a molehill; but when he again ran over the occurrences of the last week in his mind, he became sure that his instinct was right. There was something going on of which he knew nothing, It concerned himself and Meg Merle, but in what way he could by no means decide. Such hidden doings made him uneasy, after the fashion of men who ever fear the unseen.
Under these circumstances he judged it advisable to consult Jarner, and ask his advice. The old vicar was a man of great common sense, and from his long residence in Farbis was well acquainted with those whom Dan suspected. He knew Miss Linisfarne; he had some knowledge of Dr. Merle; and, in their occasional visits to Farbis, he doubtless was aware of the gipsies’ characters. With such knowledge, helped out by information on certain points from Dan, the truth might be pieced together. Failing Jarner, Dan did not know to whom to apply for assistance.
“Yes,” he decided, springing to his feet and pacing the dell, “I shall confide in Jarner, and tell him who I am. The knowledge of my name may assist him to an explanation; though what I can possibly have to do with these mysteries it is impossible to say. But there is no doubt that Tim, Mother Jericho, Merle, and Miss Linisfarne have an understanding together. As to Meg, she is as innocent and as ignorant as I. Jarner alone can help me; and when I confess my identity, I have no doubt he will tell me his story, or, rather, the stories of Merle and Miss Linisfarne.”
His thoughts halted at the last name, and turned off in the direction of Farbis Court and its strange tenant. She puzzled him more than did the others.
“I must see her,” he muttered thoughtfully. “Jarner may be able to take me there; or, failing him, I shall ask Meg to help me. Once I am face to face with her and I may learn something. Pshaw! I am deluding myself with shadows. Perhaps no mystery exists save in my imagination. Well, at all events, I shall confide in Mr. Jarner. His common sense will either dispel the shadows or turn them to reality.”
While thus soliloquizing after the manner of solitary men, he became aware that a dog-fight was in progress. Jarner’s terriers were assaulting Peter in his own dell, and the three combatants were rolling over on the miry ground in a confused mass. Dan, seeing that Peter was outmatched, shut him up in the caravan for safety, and then turned to greet his visitor. The vicar did not immediately respond to his welcome, being busily engaged in correcting the terriers. His hunting-crop was in full play, and Peter answered the howls of his late antagonists from the caravan. At length quiet was restored, and Jarner, wiping the perspiration off his face, shook Dan by the hand. As for the terriers, they retreated to a safe distance and sat down with the air of martyrs.
“By St. Beorl!” said Jarner, making use of his favourite expression, “fox-terriers are the most quarrelsome of dogs. Never a day passes without my rascals getting into a scrape.”
“They resent Peter as a trespasser, no doubt,” replied Dan, equably. “I am glad to see you, sir. Sit down on this log, and make yourself at home.”
“Whew! It’s no easy task for a man of my years to climb these hills. I am too flabby for such exertion. So this is your abode for the present?”
“Yes. Sufficiently comfortable, don’t you think?”
“Hum! Sheltered enough; but for my part, sir, I should not care about camping out in such weather as we had last night.”
“Oh, I was safe in my caravan. But you must be hungry, and the midday meal is ready. I’ve scratched together some edibles, but I am afraid the fare is rough.”
“Bottled beer, sausages, cold beef! I must say, young man, that you know how to make yourself comfortable.”
“We learn other things at Magdalen besides the lore of the schools,” said Dan, smiling. “I am not a believer in hermit’s fare.”
Mr. Jarner nodded, to intimate that he was of the same mind, and set to work on what was before him. Dan assisted with no mean appetite, and for the next half-hour they ate, drank, and were merry. Vicar and vagrant fraternized famously, and by the time their pipes were lighted were on the most friendly terms. Pleasure over, they proceeded to business.
“Well, sir,” said Jarner, looking curiously at his host, “I am here in response to your invitation. What have you to say?”
“Many things, Mr. Jarner. I am afraid I roused your curiosity the other night.”
“I don’t deny it, Dan. Why did you couple the name of Merle with that of Tinker Tim?”
“Because I believe they have an understanding together.”
“Humph! An understanding about what?—about whom?”
“That is the very thing I wish to find out, Mr. Jarner. It concerns Meg.”
The vicar suddenly raised his eyes and examined Dan’s face with the closest attention. He looked puzzled and thoughtful.
“It concerns Meg,” he repeated slowly.
“Ay, ay; and in what way?”
“That I can’t say. Now, you—”
“I am afraid I can give you no assistance,” said Jarner, a trifle stiffly. “So far as I know, there can be no connection between the gipsies and the doctor. What are your grounds for such a belief?”
“I was talking to Dr. Merle about his daughter, and suggested in a jocular way that if he found the young lady difficult to manage, he should ask Miss Linisfarne to adopt her.”
“And what did he say to that?”
“He turned as white as paper, and asked me if Tim had told me anything.”
“Strange—very strange!” said the vicar, reflectively. “What did he mean by such a remark?”
“I wish to find that out,” repeated Dan for the second time.
“For what reason, may I ask?”
“Well,” said the other, reflectively, “it sounds somewhat egotistical, but I have an idea that there is something going on between the gipsies, Dr. Merle, and Miss Linisfarne which concerns me.”
“Concerns you!” repeated Jarner, in surprise. “Why, what can a stranger like yourself have in common with such people?”
“Nothing that I know of. But perhaps I had better tell you how I came here, and leave you to judge for yourself.”
“I am all attention,” said the vicar, seriously, laying down his pipe, “and I must confess that I am curious to know who you are.”
“That is easily answered,” returned Dan, smiling. “I am Lord Ardleigh.”
Jarner rose to his feet, with an expression of blank astonishment in his rubicund face. The information took him completely by surprise. He had guessed long ago that Dan was a gentleman, but never for a moment dreamt that he was a man of title.
“Lord Ardleigh,” he repeated slowly—“the owner of Farbis Court?”
“That identical person, Mr. Jarner.”
The vicar pinched his nether lip between finger and thumb. A frown passed over his face, and he looked curiously at the nobleman.
“Why are you masquerading as a cheap-jack, my lord?”
“For no unworthy purpose, I assure you, sir. Sit down, and I will tell you my story, though it must be confessed it is the most prosaic of tales.”
Having picked up and relighted his pipe, Jarner resumed his seat on the log. Though controlling all outward expression of his feelings, he was uneasy at the revelation lately made. A lord masquerading as a vagrant was too much out of the ordinary course of things for him to accept it without disturbance. Ardleigh was the owner of Farbis Court, of Farbis village, and the patron of the living, yet Jarner gave him neither his hand nor a welcome. He was no truckler to rank, and first wished to hear the reason of the young man’s visit before accepting him as a friend. Dan guessed his thoughts, and admired him all the more for such independence.
“Lord Ardleigh—” began the vicar, when the other cut him short.
“One moment, Mr. Jarner,” he said coolly. “I have told you who I am because I wish for your assistance. But I do not want any one else to know; so please call me Dan, as you have hitherto done. Now, do not frown, my dear sir! I see you think my visit here is influenced by unworthy motives. I assure you that is a mistake. Hear my story before you condemn me, and meanwhile let us suppose that Ardleigh is in London, and call me Dan.”
There was a humorous smile on his lips as he made this speech, and the vicar was not proof against the charm of his manner. Instinct told him that the young man was to be trusted.
“Well, then, Dan,” said Jarner, his face clearing, “let me hear what you have to say.”
“You wish to know the reason of my being here, sir?”
“Ay! It is not a common thing for a nobleman to masquerade as a commoner.”
“Then I must claim the merit of originality,” said Dan, humorously. “I am but indulging in a freak. Have you ever read ‘Coelebs in Search of a Wife,’ Mr. Jarner?”
“Hannah More’s book? Ay, long ago.”
“I am following the example of her hero. As Lord Ardleigh, it is my duty to take to myself a wife and beget heirs, the more especially as if I die the title goes to a scampish cousin of mine, who would drag it in the mud. Now, in London I found great difficulty in getting a wife.”
“Ho, ho! Pardon my laughter, Lord—I mean Dan—but you surely jest. With your title, looks, and wealth, you have but to pick and choose.”
“That might be; but among all the beauties of the season—of half a dozen seasons—I saw not one with whom I would care to pass my life. I do not regard marriage as a mere ceremony signifying nothing, but as the completion of a man’s life, and am therefore hard to please in my choice of a mate.”
“Good, good! I am glad to see you consider the responsibilities of life. There is some sense in your head, young man.”
“All the women I met were more or less frivolous. They wanted my title, my money, but they did not love me for myself. Under these circumstances, I despaired of meeting one who would love me, and whom I could love. My fate was evidently not to be found in society, so I took the resolution of masquerading as a poor man, and going in search of a wife after the fashion of Coelebs.”
“Have you been successful?” asked Jarner, gravely.
“No! The lower orders have their faults as well as the upper classes. I have not yet found my ideal woman. With yonder caravan I have travelled for two summers through the land, and must confess that I like the life extremely well.”
“What brought you to Farbis, of all places?”
“There, my dear sir, you lay your finger on a mystery. Three weeks ago I was camping some considerable distance from here, in the neighbourhood of gipsies. As usual, I fraternized with them, and they urged me to go to Farbis.”
“Did they give any reason?”
“None, save that it was an interesting place. Of course they could not know me, or guess the object of my wanderings. They simply suggested Farbis; and as I remembered that I had a place here which I had never seen, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to turn aside and have a look at my property. I therefore accepted the hint given by the gipsies, and came here.”
“Pardon me, sir, but so far I see nothing mysterious.”
“Wait a moment, Mr. Jarner. Hardly had I set foot in this place when my fortune was told to me by Mother Jericho. She said I would meet with my fate at the Gates of Dawn. I went down to the beach next morning and met Meg. Tinker Tim came here and did battle with me. He observed that none other than I should have her; and this oracular sentence, I believe, applies also to Meg. Then I visited Dr. Merle, and he makes that strange remark about Tinker Tim which included a reference to Miss Linisfarne. Now then, sir,” pursued Dan, laying his forefinger in the palm of his hand, “look at all these things together—the guiding of my footsteps to this place through gipsy suggestion, the prophecy of Mother Jericho, the remark of Tim, the fear of Dr. Merle and the allusion to Miss Linisfarne. What do you make of all these things, Mr. Jarner?”
The vicar scratched his head and stared at the fire. He was gifted with unusual perspicuity, and the linking together of so many circumstances certainly seemed strange. There was ground for Dan’s suspicions, and yet Jarner could not quite see how matters stood. He frowned, and spoke with marked hesitancy.
“All such things might be coincidences. I own it is strange that the gipsies should so mix themselves up in your plans; but the whole circumstances are so intangible, that I do not see what inferences you can draw from them.”
“It seems to me, Mr. Jarner, that Meg is connected with the gipsies in some way, and that they wish me to marry her.”
“Pooh, pooh! For what reason?”
“Ah! there you have me, sir.”
“They cannot possibly know your name,” said Jarner, doubtfully, “unless you told the—”
“I told no one. One man only knows of my wanderings, and he is London. To the gipsies I must appear simply as a cheap-jack, or at the best as a broken-down gentleman. Not at all a good match for Diana of Farbis.”
“True enough,” said the vicar, smiling at the classical allusion; “and, moreover, I do not see why they should interest themselves in the girl. It is true that she is friendly with them, and often visits their camp, but gipsies do not as a rule trouble themselves about the Gorgios. Yes, I agree with you, Dan; it is certainly very strange.”
“Well, leaving our Romany friends out of the question—what has Dr. Merle to do with Miss Linisfarne? Why should he turn pale at the mention of her name?”
“You ask me riddles, sir,” said Jarner, with a vexed air—“riddles which I cannot answer. Dr. Merle has nothing to do with Miss Linisfarne. He has not even seen her.”
“You astonish me. He is a doctor, and she an invalid.”
“All the same, he has steadily refused to attend to her, although she has sent frequently for him. Miss Linisfarne remains shut up in the Court, and only sees myself and Meg; but the father of the girl has never crossed her threshold.”
Dan looked at the speaker with an air of astonishment. These matters were quite beyond his comprehension. So far as he could judge, matters were getting more mysterious than ever.
“More mysteries,” said he, smiling. “Really, Mr. Jarner, I am beginning to be interested in Farbis. Who is Dr. Merle? How long has he been in these parts?”
“For fifteen years. He arrived with his daughter when she was a year old.”
“So long! And has he always lived this solitary life?”
“Always. The man has some trouble on his mind, and strives to stifle memory by indulging in opium. He attends sometimes to the villagers, but for the most part remains secluded. Who he is I cannot say; but he must have money, even to live in the poor way he does. His village patients pay no fees, nor does he demand any. It is my impression that he has isolated himself for some circumstance connected with his early life. What it can be I do not know, as he has never confided in me. I see him sometimes, but he does not encourage my visits.”
“She, poor child, was growing up in absolute ignorance, till I expostulated with Merle and gained his permission to take charge of her. All she knows is due to my teaching, but for the softer graces of education she is indebted to Miss Linisfarne.”
“How was it that Miss Linisfarne took an interest in her, when Dr. Merle refused to go to Farbis Court?”
“It was my doing,” said the vicar, simply. “I saw that though I could teach the girl to read, write, cipher, and all the rest of it, she required the training of a woman at the hands of one of her own sex. Miss Linisfarne was wretched in her isolation, so, in the hope of employing her mind, I suggested that she should aid me to educate Meg. I am glad to say that she was pleased to oblige me, and, with her father’s permission, the girl went daily to the Court. Miss Linisfarne has taught her French and Italian; also painting and needlework and embroidery.”
“I have taught her reading, writing, arithmetic, and all necessary things that a well-educated girl should know. From me she has also learnt how to shoot, fence, ride, and fish and swim. Taking her for all in all, Lord Ardleigh, I do not think you will find a better-educated girl anywhere. What she knows, she knows thoroughly; and, for the rest, is an upright, honest creature, whom I regard as my daughter. True as steel, beautiful as Hebe, and as well educated as any of your advanced bluestockings who shriek about the equality of woman with man.”
“She is indeed a splendid creature, vicar. But her religious—”
“Sir,” said Mr. Jarner, gravely, “can you think that I, a priest of the Church, would neglect the welfare of her soul? She is a member of our Church, and has received the Communion at my hands. I have never known her to tell a lie, and her heart is excellent. Many a case of distress has she relieved, and her influence with Miss Linisfarne has ever been exercised for the benefit of the poor and needy. Gipsies or no gipsies,” added the vicar, raising a ponderous finger and shaking it at Dan, “you could not find a woman more fitted for your wife—ay, lord though you be, sir, and she a rustic maiden.”
Lord Ardleigh coloured under the steady gaze of the old man, and laughed in a somewhat embarrassed fashion.
“According to the gipsies, and to what you say, it seems I have met with my fate. She is very beautiful, and all that is desirable; but—”
“But you don’t love her? Of course not! You have only met her once.”
“I don’t say that I don’t love her,” protested Dan.
“Then you do love her?” said the vicar, eagerly.
“I don’t say that either.”
“What, what! No evasion, sir, or I shall deem you unworthy of my friendship,” thundered the vicar. “Either you love her or you do not. Which is it?”
“I can’t say, vicar. I am in a state of betwixt and between.”
Mr. Jarner looked steadily at the young lord, who met his gaze with the utmost frankness, and at length put out his hand, which the vicar grasped heartily. That was all; these two fine natures understood each other without words. The brow of the vicar cleared, and Dan smiled genially. Then they talked of other things.
“About Miss Linisfarne, sir,” asked Dan, after a pause—“what do you know about her?”
“Just as much as I know about Merle. She came down here twenty and more years ago, and took up her abode in Farbis Court. Why, I do not know, though I have asked her frequently the reason of such isolation. She was then young and beautiful, but is now a wreck of her former self. But you, my lord—you are the landlord; you—”
“I know nothing of her,” said Ardleigh, hastily. “The Court was let to her in my father’s time, when I was a little lad. She is a good tenant, and pays her rent regularly, so when I came into the estate she remained at the Court. I am as ignorant as you of her past.”
“Strange, strange!” muttered the vicar. “Here are two people who have retired from the world, and isolated themselves in this wretched place. What their secrets are I know not, as they keep them locked up in their own breasts. Ah! my dear young friend, how true it is that we mortal millions live alone!”
He wagged his head solemnly over this remark, and prepared to take his departure. Dan escorted him up the dell as far as the top of the ridge.
“I must think over what you have told me,” said the vicar, shaking hands, “and will let you know what conclusion I come to. I agree with you that there is some mystery in all this, but at present I see no way of discovering what it may be. Come and see me soon, my lord.”
“Dan!” corrected the other, smiling.
“Dan be it. Come and see me, Dan, and we will talk over matters. If you discover anything new, let me know of it. I am always at home in the evenings, and you will find a hearty welcome.”
“I won’t forget your invitation; but I wish, vicar, you would introduce me to Miss Linisfarne.”
“I cannot do so without her permission, but I shall see. Of course, as Lord Ardleigh, you can call.”
“No doubt,” replied Dan, dryly; “but I don’t intend to call as Lord Ardleigh. Keep my secret, sir, until such time as I choose to reveal myself.”
Mr. Jarner nodded and moved away, leaving Dan alone on the summit of the ridge. The young man’s eyes were turned towards Farbis Court, and then slowly travelled across the hollow till they rested on Dr. Merle’s house. He shook his head.
“There is some connection between those two houses,” he murmured. “I shall not leave Farbis till I find out what it is.”
If Dan had hoped to lead a solitary life he found out his mistake at the end of his first week’s camping. It became known far and wide that he was of a hospitable nature, with the result that the dell was visited frequently by all the idle scamps in the neighbourhood. Some came with aggressive looks and demanded money, and food, and clothes, and Heaven only knows what else; but Dan disposed of these folk by offering to fight them. As they rarely cared to accept the challenge, they left speedily, with many curses, and those who did engage were thoroughly thrashed, so in the end such ruffians gave the dell a wide berth. Never was the Augean stable swept cleaner than was the dell of bullies and rogues and would-be thieves, by its muscular occupant.
The gipsies often looked in to see how he was getting on, but these were privileged guests. Dan had partaken of their bread and salt, so was by no means chary of his own; moreover, they were instinctively polite, and never by any chance stole his belongings. He was therefore glad to see their brown faces, and made them heartily welcome. They were charmed to think that the great gentleman—as they insisted on calling Dan—should affect the life of the road, and, had he but known the Romany tongue, would doubtless have accepted him as their brother. But Dan had other things to think of besides learning the black language, and so there remained a gulf between him and the vagrants. He was with them but not of them.
When the villagers straggled up from Farbis, with looks of dull surprise at his comfortable camp, Dan did his best to put them at their ease. But the bucolic character does not lend itself readily to friendly intercourse, and he gave up the task in despair. They ate and drank at his expense, grinned and wondered, but never ventured to offer an opinion. Between such and the keen-faced gipsies there was a difference as wide as that between eagle and barn-door fowl. Dan grew weary of their dull company, and gave them to understand as much, so they gradually ceased to persecute him with visits.
Mother Jericho, Tim, and Parson Jarner were constantly in the dell both by day and by night; but Meg never came, though over four days had elapsed since their meeting. At length she made her appearance late in the afternoon, and found Dan making ready to visit the gipsy camp. When he saw her coming down the path he changed his mind, and, cap in hand, went forward to receive her with all honour.
“Welcome to the dell, Meg,” said he, extending a hand ceremoniously; “permit me to lead you to a seat by the fire.”
“I thank you greatly, Sir Charles Grandison,” she answered gravely, accepting the offer; and in such formal fashion was conducted to the log, where she sat down, and laughed.
“Are you surprised to see me, Dan?”
“Not at all! You promised to pay me a visit.”
“So I did; but I nearly changed my mind for lack of a chaperon.”
“What do you know of chaperons?” said Dan, with an amused smile. “We don’t require such spoil-sports here.”
“Miss Linisfarne said it was wrong for me to visit you without an elderly lady to take charge of me,” said the visitor, demurely.
“Indeed!” replied Dan, feeling unaccountably nettled at this uncalled-for interference. “Then why did she not come herself?”
“She never goes anywhere—poor soul,” said Meg, with a sigh; “you must not be angry at her. I was only joking about a chaperon; I rather think I can look after myself.”
“I rather think so too,” answered her host, glancing at the proud face of the young girl; “but, to quieten your scruples, let us call this dell Arcady. In Arcady chaperons are unneeded and unknown.”
“I hope tea and bread-and-butter are not unknown,” said Meg, quaintly; “for I have been on the moors all day, and came here for the selfish purpose of begging a meal.”
“You shall have one fit for a queen. Order what you like, and I shall place it before you.”
“You are, then, the Genie of the Ring?” retorted Meg, laughing; “but I think I can place you at a disadvantage. Suppose I call for champagne and oysters?”
“Oh, come, now, you must be reasonable. Though, indeed,” added Dan, with a sudden remembrance of his cellar, “I can supply you with champagne. Oysters I have not—not even tinned ones.”
“No, no!” cried Meg, as he advanced towards the caravan. “Please do not trouble. I was only joking. I never tasted champagne in my life.”
“All the more reason that you should begin now.”
“Genie of the Ring,” said Meg, gaily, “come back! I forbid you to give me anything stronger than tea. I shall have tea and bread-and-butter and jam.”
“What kind of jam?” asked Dan, laughing.
“I like strawberry best.”
“Good! I can provide you with that. We will have afternoon-tea, Meg, after the fashion of high society.”
But no society tea could have been as pleasant as that meal in the open air beside the wood fire. The dell was filled with golden sunshine, and the blue sky arched itself like a hollow sapphire over the green trees. A gentle wind whispered through the leaves, and the drowsy voice of the distant sea boomed like the solemn notes of an organ. Singing birds were in the pine wood, swallows darted through the sky, and bees and grasshoppers and humming wasps made the dell vocal with murmurous sound. Dan counted that day as one of the most perfect of his life; one to be marked with a white stone.
Meg was hungry, and not afraid of displaying her appetite. She made the tea with the assistance of Dan, and cut a pile of bread-and-butter, which in conjunction with the strawberry jam vanished like snow before them. It was a happy meal, for during its progress host and guest jested and laughed as though they had known each other all their lives. When the meal was ended Dan lighted his pipe and threw himself at Meg’s feet as she sat on the log. He looked up into her wonderful eyes and began to feel that he was falling in love with this child of nature. But she, yet fancy-free, smiled innocently at his ardent gaze, and, overflowing with life and happiness, burst into song.
“I was a maid of Arcady,
And you a shepherd, brown and merry;
We danced together o’er the lea,
And plucked the rose and leaf and berry;
For life was gay and sweet and free
Within the vales of Arcady.
“But, ah! those days are over, dear,
And you and I are sadly parted;
No longer make we merry cheer,
But wander lonely, broken hearted;
For life is sad and dark to me,
So far from happy Arcady.
“Yet, if the gods are kind, perchance
Again will come the golden weather,
And hand in hand we’ll gaily dance
With love across the purple heather.
Ah, joy, how happy shall we be
When once again in Arcady.”
“Many thanks for so charming a song,” murmured Dan, when she ended; “but why lament what is not? You are still in Arcady, remember.”
“I have been away, but have returned. This is the golden weather, yonder is the purple heather, and you and I are together.”
A flush overspread her face, and the laughter died from lips and eyes. Dan spoke more ardently than he intended, and his glance rested on her with such fire that she trembled. The song had revealed to Dan in one instant that he was in love with this dryad, and, in the sudden rush of passion to his heart, he hardly knew what he said or did. She sat with downcast eyes, and put out her hand with a sudden gesture as though to keep off something she feared. After that brief outburst of passion, which lent ardour to his words and fire to his glance, reason reasserted her sway, and Dan felt shame-faced at so far forgetting himself. With ready wit he turned off his speech as a jest, though the throbbing of his heart gave the lie to his utterance.
“Of course I speak in rhyme,” he said, forcing himself to talk calmly, “and but repeat the sentiments of your song. Where did you find such pretty words?”
Meg by this time had recovered herself. The smile came back to her lips, the sense of dread passed away, and she was able to reply to his question in her usual spirit. Yet that moment left its effect behind it, and implanted in her heart a germ to grow and spread in the near future. She was ignorant of the change for the moment, yet even then felt vaguely that something had occurred to change the face of things.
“I found the words in an old book at Farbis Court,” she replied quietly.
“A Carolian lyric, no doubt,” said Dan, carelessly. “They have a slight flavour of Suckling and Rochester. Probably they are by some rhyming ancestor of the Breels.”
“Perhaps Sir Alurde was the poet.”
“Eh? You put the verses back to Elizabeth? No. They smack more of the Restoration than of Gloriana’s reign. But, talking of Sir Alurde, when are you going to show me my double?”
“Come to-morrow to the park gates, at two o’clock, and I will take you to the picture-gallery.”
“But Miss Linisfarne?”
“Oh, she will not mind! I told her all about you, Dan.”
“I trust you drew a flattering portrait?”
“So flattering that I shall not repeat my description.”
“From such reticence I guess what you have said,” replied Dan, laughing. “Will I see Miss Linisfarne?”
“No. She never sees any one.”
“I cannot tell you. Perhaps it is because she has lost her beauty.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“Oh, very, very beautiful!” said Meg, earnestly. “She showed me her portrait, and I never saw anything so lovely in my life.”
“Ah! Then you have not looked in the glass lately,” observed Dan, rashly.
Meg jumped up quickly, and frowned. Again that fear made itself felt.
“You should not jest with me. I don’t like it.”
“On my word of honour, I am not jesting.”
His ardent gaze corroborated those words, and, with a sudden feeling of dread, she ran past him, and flitted rapidly up the path. Dan feared that he had offended her, and this fear became certainty the next moment. She fled like an angered goddess.
“Meg, Meg!” he cried earnestly; “don’t run away! Don’t be angry with me! What have I done?”
The girl turned at the top of the path, and the sunlight fell on her face. She looked rather scared than angry, but frowned when she saw him take a step forward as to follow. With an imperative gesture she bade him halt, and the next moment vanished from his sight. Then Dan raged at himself loudly.
“Oh, I am a beast and a brute and a dishonourable wretch!” said he, dashing down his cap. “How could I be such a fool as to frighten her? Yet how could I help it? The thing came on me all of a sudden. She won my heart from me with her song. I suspected this before, but now I am certain. Mother Jericho’s prophecy is fulfilled. I am in love! I have met my fate!”
From the near wood floated the fragment of the song—
“Ah, joy, how happy shall we be,
When once again in Arcady.”
“It is an omen,” said Dan, thankfully, and was greatly comforted.
My Dear Jack,
Do not be surprised at getting a second letter from me before you have answered the first. This epistle is not so much a mark of friendship and remembrance as an outlet for the emotions of my soul. I want a sympathetic person to whom I can confide my thoughts, and as none is nearer than yourself, I make use of the penny post for the easing of my mind.
No doubt this beginning will astonish you greatly; but the end is still more astonishing, so hold yourself in reserve for the revelation of a startling secret. As yet it is only a few hours old, and you are the first person to whom it is to be confided. And rightly so, for to whom else would I reveal it but to you, my Jonathan, my Pylades—my—my—any other bosom friend, of whom history makes mention. Jack, I am in—but, no, let me break it gently, lest the shock prove too much for your nerves.
Have you read of the Lord of Burleigh, Jack? Do you know the legend of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid? Of course you do, and have, with me, sneered at and disbelieved in the possibility of such love episodes. For my share in such doubts I am now being punished. I am hoist on my own petard. I am the eagle pierced by a shaft feathered from his own plumage. Call me no more Lord Ardleigh, but the Lord of Burleigh, and dub me Cophetua, for a jest, for I also have fallen a victim to cunning Cupid. She—
Now you can guess my secret from the last word. No need to burden you with explanations. You know all. Who else but a lover would say “She,” and expect to be understood without further remark? Yes, Jack, it has come! I am in love. In love, Jack, with an angel—don’t wrinkle your brows, cynic!—and her name is Diana of Farbis. I have seen her to-day for the third time, and, after a weak attempt to fight against Fate, I have succumbed. The gipsy hag is right! I have met my fate at the Gates of Dawn. Joy has come up through them, and I—unworthy creature that I am—am rewarded far beyond my deserts. I should here quote poetry, as prose is too feeble to express my meaning; but I refrain lest you should refuse to finish this letter. I know how impatient you are over rhyme sans reason.
In sober serious earnest, Jack, I am rather bewildered by the novel sensation of being in love. When I first met this girl, I simply caught a glimpse of a lovely face which I admired in an artistic way as one admires a fine picture or a perfect statue. At our second meeting she spoke to me, and I felt drawn towards her in the most extraordinary manner. She babbled little else than nonsense, yet I preferred such to the most sensible speeches. Thus does love make fools of us all. Not that I then believed myself to be in love—though I had a faint fear that it might be so. With the third meeting came the full knowledge of my passion. To-day, Meg—that is her name—came to my dell and had afternoon tea. We were in Arcady for the moment, and she sang some foolish strain of love and parting. When she finished I knew I was in danger. When she left me, after an interval of talk more or less idle, I recognized the truth—that I was in love.
Pray do not shake your head, and say that I have loved before. This is no counterfeit Eros, but the god himself, in all the glory of his divinity. It is not a subject to be laughed at, and if you do not sympathize with me at this crisis of my life, then never more be Pylades of mine. If she be all I take her to be—and I do not speak without due knowledge—then my quest is ended, and I have found the ideal woman of my dreams.
To revert a moment to the commonplace details of life. Did I tell you I have here met with a sporting divine! Well, then, I have; and he is one of the most delightful persons I have come into contact with outside a novel.
Trollope could have handled him with admirable skill, though I am afraid my rustic clergyman would have shocked Mrs. Proudie. He is the vicar of this place, and is a ponderous red-faced divine, after the style of Dr. Johnson. He shakes a large head, frowns with bushy eyebrows, and rolls out “sir” in the real Boswell style. Two fox-terriers attend him constantly, like familiar spirits, and he is learned in horse-dealing, in riding, in veterinary surgery, and other things relating to the equine part of creation. Peter introduced me to this prop of the Church by fighting with the ecclesiastical terriers. When the dogs were pacified, the masters, parson and vagabond, fraternized over foaming tankards of noble ale. He is a bachelor, and mostly dwells in an untidy back-parlour, which must have been taken from Tom Jones. I’ll swear that Squire Western dwelt in such a one.
Mr. Jarner paid me a visit yesterday and told me all about Meg. She is a protégée of his, and I fancy he rather disapproved of the deep interest I manifested in the rustic beauty. To calm his apprehensions, I told him who I was, and assured him of my honesty of purpose. I declared myself an honest man. This last he considered was better than being a lord, and, to tell you the truth, I think so myself. Since I doffed my title, Jack, and consorted with my fellow-creatures, I have learned many things of which I would otherwise have been ignorant. If I woo Meg—and I intend to do so—it will be after the fashion of the Lord of Burleigh, not as a landscape painter, but as a simple gentleman rather out at elbows. As such I shall have at least a chance of being loved for myself.
I have many things to tell you, but shall reserve them till our meeting in the near future. Were I to commit them to paper this letter would never come to an end. There are certain mysteries connected with the girl I love, which I am trying to fathom. Jarner gives me his assistance, and I have a staunch friend in him. Whether we will be successful yet remains to be seen.
To-morrow I go to Farbis Court! No, I am not calling on Miss Linisfarne, as the old lady lives as secluded as a nun. I am going at the invitation of Meg, who proposes to show me the portrait of a certain Sir Alurde Breel, whom she says I greatly resemble. That is not inexplicable, seeing he is an Elizabethan ancestor of mine. Meg does not know this, and is greatly puzzled over what she considers a freak of nature. I believe she is half in love with Sir Alurde, and, as I resemble him so closely, the atavism may perhaps be a help to my wooing.
It is no light task I have undertaken, Jack. Meg is so innocent, so utterly simple, that it seems like a sacrilege to disturb her tranquillity with love tales. She has no more idea of love than had Miranda before she met Ferdinand. Yet, if my memory serves me, Prospero’s daughter found no difficulty in loving the shipwrecked Prince. I don’t suppose any woman does find a difficulty when the knowledge of the passion comes to her. How could they, when, as Horace says, they learn it before their A, B, C. But Horace is a wicked old pagan, and I blush to quote him in connection with my spotless Una.
Oh, Jack, if you only see what pretty ways she has, and how charmingly she can smile! “All heaven is in that smile.” And her singing! Jack, she has a voice like a nightingale. Pshaw! no nightingale can trill like her. I am fathoms deep in love, Jack,—fathoms deep. I should like to tell her all I feel, yet must be wary and delicate in my attentions. She is as timid as a dove, and may fly like one, should I speak too boldly. Even the admiration in my eyes offended her to-day, though I swear I looked not with ruffian passion in her face. As soon would I think of killing myself in the midst of my newly found happiness, as of cherishing an unworthy thought of this Diana.
I must pause here, as my passion is carrying me beyond all bounds, and I wax poetical. I dare say you think it would be as well for me to talk less poetry and more common sense. You are right, and I will try to do so; but it is as hard for a lover to be practical, as it is for a poet to stay Pegasus when his wings are spread.
After love comes marriage, and I can fancy your grave looks at the idea of my making Meg Merle my wife. From a worldly point of view I admit that I might do better. She is only the daughter of a country doctor, and has not a penny to her name. But, Jack, she has more than money or rank. She has beauty, and honesty, and a noble soul. If you only heard the vicar talk about her! and, from what little I have seen, I endorse every word of his eulogy. Where would I meet with such another? Shall I discard this pearl simply because I gave myself the trouble to be born a lord? No, my friend, a thousand times no! I shall have many opportunities of seeing Meg, and if she is all Jarner says and all I take her to be, then will I make her Lady Ardleigh—that is, if she is willing to bless me with her hand and heart. As to the opinion of society, I care no more for that than you do. I have always gone my own way and done what I thought was right, even at the cost of being considered priggish and eccentric. I do not need more money, and would rather take a penniless wife like Meg than marry the artificial daughter of a millionaire. Marriage is a sacrament, not a compact. Would you have me give my title in exchange for filthy lucre, Jack? Perish the idea! Rather would I remain a bachelor for the rest of my life. My relations may shriek about misalliance, but what care I for their clamour? You stand by me, Jack, and I shall have no fear but that all will yet be well.
“And all this,” say you, with a grin, “before he knows if the girl will take him.” Ay! that’s the rub. Remember, I woo unassisted by title or wealth. I woo as plain Dan of the caravan, and have to trust to my own tongue and overmastering passion. She may refuse me, but I don’t think she will. Already she has hung out a red flag on her cheeks, and who knows but what my wooing may speed more merrily than I think? At all events, Jack, I have a staunch friend in old Jarner. He will help me win this shy nymph, if no one else will; but, on the whole, I prefer to trust to my unassisted self for success.
Here I must close; I could go on writing all night, but out of mercy for you I shall end. Read “Romeo and Juliet,” and you will form some faint conception of my feelings. You laugh! He jests at scars who never felt a wound. Ha! ha! I had you in the trap there, friend Jack. But no more—this letter grows tedious, so I end it, and retire to dream of her who makes my hell a heaven.
Jack! Jack! you have lost the friend of your youth; for I am now stabbed by a wench’s black eye. You, too, will go the same way, though you have railed at love as heartily as did—
P.S.—Jack, she is an angel. I am not good enough for her.
“Have you been waiting long?” asked Meg, swinging a large key.
“Close on an hour,” replied Dan, ruefully; “I never passed so tedious a sixty minutes in my life.”
Meg laughed, and clinked the key against the iron bars. She was on one side of the gate, and he was on the other, but they could see and smile, which was a better fate than befell Pyramus and Thisbe when divided by that cruel wall. Dan felt as though he were on the eve of storming an enchanted castle to release a spellbound princess. He mentioned this fancy to Meg, who raised her eyebrows.
“You must be thinking of Miss Linisfarne then,” she said, “for no imprisoned princess would possess a key.”
“Very well, Meg, let us change the fairy story, and say that you are Bluebeard’s wife. She had a key, and made bad use of it. But are you going to keep me outside Paradise?”
“Paradise!” repeated Meg, not seeing the veiled compliment. “Why do you call the park Paradise?”
After his bad fortune of the previous day, Dan was careful not to hurt her susceptibilities, and explained his compliment in a most prosaic fashion. Were he to speak plainly, she might refuse him admittance.
“Paradise,” said he gravely, “is a Persian word, and signifies a large enclosure filled with wild beasts.”
“That is not a pretty thing to say, seeing that I am in this enclosure.”
“Oh! if you want compliments, I—”
“No, no! I want no compliments,” she cried hastily, putting the key in the lock; “you must not think I am so foolish as to believe all you say.”
“Do I, then, talk such sad nonsense?”
“I’m afraid so. Pray do not talk any more, but enter into your wild-beast enclosure.”
The heavy gates opened with a rumble, and Dan stepped in. When he was on the right side Meg locked the gates once more. He was rather amused at so useless a precaution.
“Are you afraid of thieves here?”
“No. But Miss Linisfarne does not like strangers to enter the park. She will let no one see her.”
“A female veiled prophet! Why does she live so secluded?”
“I don’t know!” said Meg, coldly; “she never told me, and I do not ask questions.”
“That is a hint for me to be silent, I suppose. Well, I won’t inquire further.”
They were walking up the grass-grown avenue, and Dan was amazed at the savageness of the place. Meg was quite used to it, and saw nothing strange in the desolation. It did not seem to lower her spirits, but rather had the opposite effect, as she began to whistle. A very pretty whistle she had, and executed an operatic air with much precision and sweetness. Dan laughed. She was so unconventional that he could not help his merriment.
“Why do you laugh, Daniel?” said Meg, severely.
“I beg your pardon, but I never heard a young lady whistle before.”
“Oh, I know it is wrong—Miss Linisfarne is always scolding me; but I cannot break off the habit. Are you shocked?”
“By no means. I am charmed.”
“Another compliment. If you make any more I shall leave you, sir.”
“What, in this tropical jungle! Do not be so cruel. Remember I am a stranger, and entitled to hospitality.”
Meg looked at him doubtfully, not understanding such irony; but Dan looked so grave when he spoke, that she passed over his remark in silence.
“This is the house,” she said, as they turned a corner and came within view of Farbis Court; “and yonder is Miss Linisfarne, walking on the terrace.”
Before them stretched the long façade of Farbis Court, looking desolate and ruinous in the strong light of the afternoon. A figure in white was slowly pacing up and down the terrace, but as they advanced towards the steps vanished into the house. Dan turned to his companion for an explanation.
“She sees you are a stranger,” said Meg, gravely, “and will now shut herself up in her own room till you leave.”
“Has she— Oh, I beg your pardon; I must not ask questions. But your Miss Linisfarne is a most mysterious lady. One would think she had committed a crime.”
“Ah! You have been listening to foolish tales in the village.”
“On my honour, I have not. It was a mere idea.”
“A very incorrect one,” said the girl, who seemed offended at the imputation cast on her benefactress. “Do not say anything about Miss Linisfarne when you are inside. She may overhear you.”
“Not if she stays in her room.”
His guide laughed, but vouchsafed no explanation of her merriment. She knew perfectly well that Miss Linisfarne would be close beside them, to examine Dan thoroughly, but this information she did not think it wise to impart to her companion. Laying her finger on her lips to command silence, she led him into the dusky hall, and closed the great door with a resonant crash.
It was the first time that Dan had set foot in the house of his ancestors, and he looked curiously at his surroundings. The hall was flagged with black and white marble in a diamond pattern, and on all sides arose tall white pillars, which vanished in the obscurity of the roof. Indeed, the whole house was pervaded by a twilight atmosphere, which Dan guessed was caused by the dirty state of the windows and the lavish use of stained glass. It smelt mouldy, and their footsteps echoed in the large empty spaces in a most dreary fashion. One could well imagine it to be filled with ghostly company at night.
“Do phantoms haunt this place?” whispered Dan, as they ascended the wide staircase. “I can well imagine lords and ladies in silks and satins and powdered hair and slender canes coming out in the darkness.”
“I never saw any of them,” replied Meg, in a matter-of-fact tone; “and I have been all over the house at midnight. Surely you don’t believe in ghosts!”
“No. But I could forgive any one who did while dwelling in this house.”
“It is rather dreary,” said Meg, casting a careless look around. “I wonder Lord Ardleigh doesn’t pull the place down. But I don’t suppose he knows he possesses the mansion.”
“Because he would not neglect it so much if he did. Why doesn’t he come down and stay here, and see what he can do to help the weavers of Farbis? He is very wealthy, you know.”
“Is he, indeed?” said Dan, greatly amused at having himself discussed so openly.
“Very wealthy; but he wastes all his money in London.”
“You do not care for him, I see.”
“I think he ought to be more alive to the responsibilities of his position,” said Meg, primly. “What are you laughing at now?”
“Is that sentiment your own?” said Dan, ignoring the question.
“No. It is Mr. Jarner’s. But we can talk of this later on. Here is the picture-gallery.”
It was a dreary-looking place; and Dan shuddered as he walked under the rows of frowning portraits. These were his ancestors—these men in armour, these stern-faced Puritans, these sad-looking ladies. Farbis Court and its desolation seemed to cast a shadow over all. He felt like a culprit under the menacing gaze of knight and dame.
“Upon my word, they are a melancholy lot!” said their graceless descendant. “I don’t think they approve of my intrusion. I don’t see a merry face among them.”
“Sir Alurde is merry-faced.”
“As I am his double, I am glad that he is. I should not care to wear such sour looks. Where is the gentleman?”
“You are standing close to him.”
Dan turned with a start, as though he expected to find a ghost at his elbow, and beheld a picture of himself on the wall. The resemblance was very striking, and he wondered that Meg did not guess he was Lord Ardleigh, with such a proof before her.
“You might have sat for it,” said Meg, looking from Sir Alurde to Dan.
“I am glad to hear you say so. I assure you I had no idea I was so good-looking.”
“Oh, indeed, you are very good-looking, Dan.”
The man of the world blushed at the praise of this rustic maiden, and held up a protesting hand. He was standing by a window, and the light striking on his face emphasised his resemblance to Sir Alurde in a startling manner.
“You will make me vain if you talk so,” he said, smiling. “I see you admire Sir Alurde.”
“I do; I am quite in love with him.”
Before Dan could make capital out of this remark by introducing himself, he was startled by a long-drawn sigh which sounded close at hand.
“Is that you, Meg?”
“No; what do you mean?”
“Did you sigh?”
“Of course not. Why should I sigh?”
“Then it must have been one of those ghosts we were talking about. I certainly heard some one sighing.”
Meg knew well enough that Miss Linisfarne was close at hand, and, fearful lest her companion should make some allusion to her, hastily beckoned him away.
“Come up here, Dan. I wish to show you a very pretty lady.”
“Yourself?” said he, laughing; whereat she frowned and stamped her foot.
“Why will you talk so! It is a Lady Ardleigh of the Restoration. She is—”
“A doll,” said Dan, contemptuously, looking at the simpering beauty,—“a china doll. Surely you don’t think her beautiful! She has no soul.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mean? Why, that she has never loved. You can see it in her face.”
“I have never loved, Dan, and I don’t think myself a china doll, I assure you.”
“Oh, but you are a—”
The words died away on Dan’s lips, as a tall figure advanced slowly down the gallery. It was a woman who had once been very beautiful, but who was now a wreck of her former self. She looked steadily at Dan, and then glanced at Meg.
“Miss Linisfarne!” said the girl, transfixed with astonishment.
For the space of a minute, or it might be more, they looked at one another—Miss Linisfarne at Dan, he and Meg at Miss Linisfarne. It was so contrary to her usual custom to thus show herself to a stranger, that Meg might well be excused for being tongue-tied with astonishment. The languid creature whom Meg knew and pitied had disappeared as by magic, and in her place stood a bright-eyed, cheek-flushed being, who had regained for the moment the lost loveliness of her prime. Unable to guess the reason of this rejuvenescence, Meg could only look at her benefactress with parted lips and amazed eyes.
Miss Linisfarne took no heed of her presence, but examined Dan in a leisurely manner, as though he were as indifferent to her regard as was Sir Alurde in his frame behind. Man of the world as Dan was, the eager scrutiny of this woman made him vaguely resentful, and he was amazed at the lack of delicacy which could permit her to signify so openly her admiration for a stranger. It seemed an insult to Meg that she should look at him with such brazen assurance; and, indifferently as he returned her gaze, he felt indignant at her demeanour. Meg was the first of the trio to break silence. She mistook Miss Linisfarne’s examination of Dan for anger at his intrusion, and hastened to excuse him.
“Do not be angry, Miss Linisfarne,” she said breathlessly. “I wished to show Dan the picture of Sir Alurde, and—
“I am not angry, child,” interrupted Miss Linisfarne. “Why should I be angry? I gave you permission to show the gallery to this gentleman.”
“Pardon me, madam, I do not claim to be a gentleman,” said Dan, still resentful of her unwomanly scrutiny.
“That may be so, sir,” answered Miss Linisfarne, coldly; “but you must permit me to form my own opinion. Keep your secret, if it pleases you to do so. In due time you will no doubt reveal your identity.”
She spoke with such significance that Dan felt uneasy lest, owing to his resemblance to Sir Alurde, she should guess his name and rank. Gifted with a keener appreciation of culture than either Meg or the vicar, she saw at once through his flimsy disguise. She did not know he was Lord Ardleigh, but felt convinced that he was of gentle birth. He felt himself unmasked, yet was by no means ready to concede the point.
“You flatter me, Miss Linisfarne,” said he, bowing. “I trust I shall continue to deserve your good opinion.”
Miss Linisfarne smiled, but did not make any immediate reply to this ironic remark. The appearance of Dan and the evident mystery connected with his residence at Farbis piqued her curiosity, so she invented a pretext for getting Meg out of the way, in order to discover if possible who and what he was.
“Meg, my dear,” she said, turning to the girl, “perhaps your friend would like a cup of tea. Tell the housekeeper to get it ready in my room.”
Dan bowed his acceptance of this invitation, being as curious to talk with Miss Linisfarne as she was with him. The unusual hospitality added to Meg’s perplexity, but, not daring to ask Miss Linisfarne’s reasons, she tripped away to carry out the order. When her footsteps died away, Miss Linisfarne turned again towards Dan, and their eyes met. A duel of words was inevitable, as each wished to know the secret of the other. Conscious of this, Dan tried to gain the advantage by speaking first.
“It is very kind of you to ask me to sit down with you, Miss Linisfarne. May I ask you a question?”
She seated herself in the chair under Sir Alurde’s picture, and signified her consent with a smiling nod. The coming war of words braced her nerves and aroused her from the lethargy of years. She felt like a new creature.
“Is it your custom to entertain all vagrants who come here?” asked Dan, with feigned simplicity.
“Yes, when they are vagrants like you, sir. Come, Dan—since it pleases you to call yourself by that hideous name,—let me know why you have come to Farbis.”
“To see the portrait of Sir Alurde.”
“You resemble it greatly,” said Miss Linisfarne, annoyed at this evasion. “One would think you were connected with the Breels.”
“You flatter me,” said he again, feeling that this chance observation was too near the mark to be pleasant.
“Why will you not be candid with me?” asked Miss Linisfarne, in a vexed tone.
Dan hesitated. He was astonished at the way in which she threw off all reserve and spoke to him. It was on the tip of his tongue to point out that it was not her business to ask questions about a stranger; but she guessed his thoughts, and commented on them frankly.
“I see what is in your mind, sir. You think that I have no business to ask impertinent questions, but I assure you I have every right to do so.”
“I do not understand. I am afraid I am dull.”
“Not at all! You quite see my position. I am the chaperon, guardian, protectress—what you will—of Meg. She is an innocent girl, who knows nothing of the world, and it is my duty to look after her.”
“Why should you impute unworthy motives to me?”
“I impute no motives,” replied Miss Linisfarne, calmly; “but I ask myself, why is a gentleman philandering in this lonely place disguised as a vagrant? What reply can you make to that question, sir?”
“Simply that I travel for my pleasure, and do not feel inclined to reveal my name.”
“Did you come down to Farbis with any purpose in your mind?”
“No; I did not know the place at all. I came by chance, and, as Farbis pleases me, I propose to stay here for a week or so.”
“For what purpose?”
Dan shrugged his shoulders to intimate that his purpose was not worth mentioning. This was rude, but Miss Linisfarne invited the discourtesy by the persistency with which she sought to know what did not concern her. Perhaps the hint was taken, for, after a meditative pause, she apologized for her curiosity.
“The strangeness of our position must excuse the absence of the convenances, sir. It is not the custom for ladies and gentlemen to talk at the first meeting as we are now doing. But it is so rare to find a stranger in these parts, that you must excuse my very natural curiosity. Again, there is Meg to consider.”
She waited for an answer, but none came. Dan was considering if it would be wise to confess that he loved the girl, but, on second thoughts, decided to postpone such information. It would seem ridiculous in the eyes of Miss Linisfarne that he should profess to love Meg when he had only seen her three times. On the face of it the statement was absurd. He did not think so, being intoxicated with love; but the cooler judgment of Miss Linisfarne might look at it in quite a different light, therefore he had sense enough to hold his tongue.
“You must not meet Meg any more,” said Miss Linisfarne, seeing he did not reply.
“Can you not see?” was the impatient answer. “She is a child, and you a man of the world. If she falls in love with you it will disturb her peace of mind. Would it be fair to do so?”
“Can I not see Meg in your presence?”
“I shall think about it,” said Miss Linisfarne, thoughtfully. “Meanwhile, now that we have met, you can call again if you choose to do so. I am a lonely woman, and your presence will give me great pleasure.”
Dan felt rather embarrassed at this generous offer of friendship. He could not understand how Miss Linisfarne could be so rash in welcoming a stranger, who, for all she knew, might prove anything but a desirable acquaintance. He set it down to her long seclusion from the world, and a natural craving for society at any price. There was no hesitation on his part in accepting her offer, as he wished to see as much of Meg as he was able, and, as the girl was constantly at the Court, it would give him many opportunities of speaking with her.
“I shall be delighted to call, Miss Linisfarne; and I promise you I shall appear more respectably dressed when I again make my appearance.”
“Will you leave your card on the occasion of your next visit?” she asked meaningly.
“I am afraid that would not be much use, madam,” he answered, avoiding the trap so skilfully laid. “You know my name.”
“Your travelling name only.”
“It will suffice for Farbis.”
“That may be, sir, but will it suffice for me?”
Pushed into a corner, Dan hardly knew what reply to make. She was evidently determined to force him to speak, but he was fully as obstinate as she, and doggedly refused to gratify her desire. Yet not wishing to appear rude, he temporized.
“In a week or so I shall tell you my name, if you still desire to know it, Miss Linisfarne.”
“You promise that?” she said eagerly.
“I promise you faithfully,” he answered, knowing well that did he wish to enlist her in his wooing it would be shortly necessary to confess all to her, as he had already done to Jarner. Then he tried to discover her secret, and, in his turn, asked questions. She proved to be as clever as he in baffling curiosity.
“Do you know Dr. Merle, madam?”
“Only by name. I have never seen him, though when ill I have frequently sent for him. I cannot understand his refusal to come, but put it down to the fact that he is as great an invalid as myself, and as rarely leaves his house.”
“Have you met with Meg’s friends, the gipsies?”
“No, sir. Do I not tell you that I never go beyond the park gates? I am dead to the world. As I asked you so many questions you have, perhaps, a right to retaliate, but I must request you to ask no more.”
“I beg your pardon. As you observed, the strangeness of our meeting must excuse the absence of the convenances. Here is Meg returning.”
“Who said you might call her Meg?”
“She did. I would not have done so without her permission.”
“You should not have taken advantage of that permission, sir. She is a child, and knows no better; but you—”
“Will be more careful in the future. Do not let us quarrel again, Miss Linisfarne.”
She was most unaccountably angry at his familiarity with her protégée, but his last remark, and the smile with which it was made, seemed to quieten her wrath. She controlled herself with a strong effort, and saluted Meg gaily—
“Well, child, is the tea ready?”
“Quite ready, Miss Linisfarne Are you hungry, Dan?”
“Yes, Miss Merle.”
“Miss Merle? Why ‘Miss Merle’?”
“By my request, Meg,” said Miss Linisfarne, angrily. “You are too old, child, for a gentleman to call you by your Christian name. Give me your arm, sir. I am too weak to walk down the stairs unaided.”
Dan walked about with Miss Linisfarne, and Meg, much dismayed at the outburst of her benefactress, lagged in the rear. He glanced over his shoulder, and saw that she by no means approved of the way in which Miss Linisfarne had taken possession of him. He wondered, also, at the position in which he found himself, but ceased to think it strange when he learned the cause. That first visit to the Court plunged him into troubles of which he had no conception. Yet he never regretted his acquaintance with Miss Linisfarne, in spite of the trouble, as he learned many things of importance to his future of which he would otherwise have remained ignorant. In this case out of evil came good.
That evening, Dan paid a visit to Mr. Jarner in order to confess his newly born passion. After the rebuff he had received from Miss Linisfarne, he judged it as well to enlist the sympathy of the vicar, so that if the one retarded the other would speed his wooing. Miss Linisfarne had taken up a distinctly hostile attitude towards Meg. She monopolized Dan all the tea-time, and seemed displeased when he addressed the girl even in the most casual manner. Dan was quite unaware of her reason for acting thus, and so wished to seek the advice and assistance of Mr. Jarner.
The vicar was installed in the oaken parlour, and, according to his usual custom, had placed himself at the open window with his beer and his long clay pipe. There was no light in the room save what was given by the soft twilight. Dan hailed his host outside, and was bidden to enter with hearty hospitality.
“Hey, lad, I’m glad to see you,” said Mr. Jarner, in his usual loud voice; “come inside—come inside. A tankard and a pipe and a chat ye shall have. Down, Jane! Down, Mike!”—this to the yapping terriers. “Come in, my lord.”
“Hush!” said Dan, pausing on the threshold of the parlour; “not that name here.”
“Ay, ay! I forgot. It is Dan I’m to call you. Sit ye down. Yonder’s the chair. Wait, and I’ll light up.”
“Not on my account, sir,” said his visitor, seating himself on the window seat. “Let us sit down here and enjoy the beauty of the evening. It is good to live on days like these. You remember Keble on the evening, vicar?”
“Ay, sir; Keble and Cowper. Both knew the quiet of eventide. Isn’t that a pretty picture, sir?”—the vicar pronounced it ‘pratty.’ “Yon’s the church tower black against the clear glow of the sky. Bats and owls are abroad; I’ve been watching their flittings. And hark, if you have a soul for music, Dan.”
“He’s in the thicket yonder, and sings his evening hymn nightly to me. To think that yonder strain is but an invitation to battle—the cock nightingale calling to his rival!”
“Then all the sorrow of the bird—”
“Comes from the poets. Poetic invention, sir! though I don’t deny the ideal view is finer than the real. But we can talk of birds and beasts another time. What brings you here, Dan?”
“A desire for your company, vicar.”
“Pooh-pooh, sir! Am I a young maiden that ye should come slipping through the dark to talk with me? You’ve—ay, ay, here’s a tankard for you, Dan. Come, drink up!”
“To tell you the truth, Mr. Jarner, I wish to speak seriously with you,” said Dan, after they had pledged each other in ale.
“Is it about those mysteries, Dan? Have you found out anything new?”
“I have seen Miss Linisfarne.”
The vicar laid down his pipe on the window sill, and, with his hands on his knees, stared in surprise at his visitor. The news astonished him.
“You—seen—Miss—Linisfarne!” said he, with a pause between each word. Dan nodded thrice to assure him that such was the case. Whereat the vicar picked up his pipe again, and proceeded to proclaim his wonderment. “It is the first time she has seen a stranger for years. How did you chance on her, may I ask?”
“Meg took me to the Court to see the picture of Sir Alurde Breel, and, while we were looking at it, Miss Linisfarne made her appearance.”
“She was most agreeable, and very curious to know who I was.”
“Did you gratify her curiosity, Dan?” demanded the vicar, with a twinkle in his eye. His short acquaintance with Lord Ardleigh had shown him something of the young man’s character.
“No, sir. I managed to keep my secret with some difficulty, so she made another attempt to find it out, and asked me to tea.”
“Preserve us!” cried Jarner, breaking his pipe in his astonishment; “if this is not the most remarkable thing I have heard. Tea at Farbis Court, and you a stranger! In all the years I have known Miss Linisfarne, I have never broken bread under her roof. Look after yourself, lad. There’s woman’s guile at work. If you don’t take care of yourself, the old lady will marry you. You’ll be mated, my lord, before you know where you are. There is no trusting Eve’s daughters,” finished the vicar, rising to get a fresh pipe.
“I’ll be married soon, no doubt, Mr. Jarner, but not to Miss Linisfarne.”
In the glow of the match, with which the vicar was lighting his new pipe, Dan saw that his face had suddenly grown serious.
“Are you talking of Meg, my lord?”
“Yes. Of whom else should I talk? I am in love with Meg, sir, and, with your assistance, hope to make her my wife.”
“Is this a joke, my lord?” demanded Mr. Jarner, sternly.
“I was never more serious in my life.”
“Then you’re a lunatic, sir—a crazy person! What?—what? To love a woman you’ve seen but twice—to—”
“Pardon me! I’ve seen her four times.”
“When, and where?”
“First, at the Gates of Dawn. Second, on the crest of the ridge. Third, at afternoon tea, in my dell, yesterday. Fourth, to-day at Farbis Court.”
“My lord—my lord, you—”
“Don’t call me ‘my lord’!”
“Ay, but I shall, my lord. This is a serious matter, and it behoves you to talk with me in your true colours. As a priest, my Lord Ardleigh, I tell you that it is wrong for you to behave so!”
“I don’t understand you, sir,” said Dan, placidly. He was not at all put out by the vicar’s anger, which he considered just enough, in the parson’s present state of misapprehension.
“She has been to your dell, sir—alone.”
“Don’t go too far, sir! You have no right to judge me without a hearing!”
“The Lord forgive me if I am harsh!” said Jarner, wiping his forehead; “but the girl is dear to me, and I would not have a hair of her head harmed for all the gold of Ophir. I listen, my lord.”
“There is not much to tell, Mr. Jarner. Meg had tea with me in the dell; and it was there I fell in love with her.”
“You cannot love so suddenly, sir! This is a young man’s fancy!”
“Indeed, no! I am in love with her beauty, her heart, and her noble character. Can you blame me?”
“No! It is natural that you should love so fine a creature. But so soon—so soon! Ay, there’s the rub, my lord! Easy in—easy out!”
“My dear vicar, if you had constructed an ideal, and suddenly found it realized in the flesh, would you not fall in love with it forthwith?”
“Probably, my lord—probably!”
“Well, that is what I have done. For years I have sought a woman like Meg, in the hope of making her my wife. Now I have found her, I am not inclined to let her go.”
“But your rank—your relatives.”
“A fig for both, my dear sir. I shall woo, and, I hope, win, under the name of Dan, and as to my relatives, I can settle with them. Believe me, Mr. Jarner, Meg will make a noble Countess of Ardleigh.”
“That is true!—that is true! A heart of gold, my lord—of gold unalloyed!”
“From what I have seen of her, from what you have told me of her, I see well that I can find no better mate. If she will accept me as her husband, vicar, I shall feel proud and happy. You see, sir, the gipsy’s prophecy is coming true, after all.”
Mr. Jarner wiped his eyes. He was deeply affected for the moment, for, knowing the merits of Meg, he wished her to marry a man worthy of her. Such a one Dan appeared to be, for, lord or no lord, he was an honest, noble young fellow, whom any girl might be proud to have at her feet. It was greatly to Mr. Jarner’s credit that Dan’s rank weighed not one iota in his estimation of the situation.
“Good! good!” said Jarner, gripping Dan’s hand; “if it is no fancy, but real, enduring love, I’ll help you, my lord. But,” he added, springing to his full height, “if you play her false—”
“I shall not play her false,” rejoined Dan, seriously. “On my honour, I swear that she shall be my wife.”
The vicar would have replied, but at that moment a whistle rang out in the garden. Jarner raised his head and listened. It was repeated.
“Not a word more, Dan,” said he, hurriedly; “here is Tinker Tim, I know his whistle—we will talk of this again. Be honest and true, and I shall be your friend.”
They had just time to exchange a hearty hand-shake, when Tim’s huge bulk appeared at the window. The dogs barked furiously; but, nothing dismayed, the gipsy thrust in his mighty shoulders, and nodded to the gentlemen.
“Evening to both o’ ye,” said Tim, familiarly. “I looked in at your dell, young man, but the fire was out and you also. Hy! passin, I’ve got ye the dorg.”
“What, another dog?” laughed Dan, as the gipsy hauled a fox-terrier pup out of his pocket. “Why, vicar, you must have a dozen.”
“Nay, five only! This makes the sixth,” replied Jarner, taking the dog from Tim. “Light the lamp, Dan, and we’ll have a look at this one.”
Thereafter ensued an argument over the dog, its breed, its price, and its condition, between the vicar and Tim. Dan listened with great amusement, and the buyer and seller went at it hard, the one trying to get the better of the other. At length a satisfactory bargain was concluded, and Tim, before taking his departure, accepted a drink of ale from the hospitable clergyman.
“I’ll go with you, Tim,” said Dan, putting on his cap; “it will be company up to my dell.”
“Right, rye!” replied the Tinker, draining the tankard. “Good night t’ ye, my noble gentleman,” he added, nodding to Jarner.
“Come and see me to-morrow; we will resume our conversation.”
This was the parting salutation of Jarner to Dan, and after he promised to call, he strode away with Tim into the darkness. At the top of the ridge, Dan halted to look down at the Gates of Dawn, which reared themselves like the portals of night in the gloom. Tim chuckled and clapped his companion heavily on the shoulder.
“What about the prophecy, my lord?” said he, in a dry voice.
“My lord!” repeated Dan, starting. “What, you know?”
“I know that you are Lord Ardleigh, and that the prophecy of the Mother is fulfilled.”
Summer was giving place to autumn, and still Lord Ardleigh lingered at Farbis. A constant succession of fine days enabled him to continue his outdoor life; and so many weeks had he dwelt in the dell, that he quite looked on it in the light of a home. Instructed and guided by Meg, who was proficient in woodcraft, he soon became conversant with moors and valleys, and pine woods and adjacent hamlets. For miles round he explored the country, and learned the fascination exercised on the thoughtful mind by the barren hills. Those summer days were henceforth to rank among the pleasant memories of his life; and with reason, for were they not the days of his wooing? Who forgets the time when Cupid was king?
It may be questioned whether he would have professed such ardent admiration of Bohemianism, had not Meg been with him daily from morn till sunset. She was his companion in all excursions, and treated him in a sisterly fashion. Such chilly affection he was far from relishing, being deeply in love, but the time was not yet ripe for him to speak. Meg had still to learn the pains and sweetness of love, but such knowledge had not yet come to her. In vain did Dan, by looks and words, endeavour to touch her heart. She could not understand, and though she professed to like him greatly, gave no sign of experiencing any deeper feeling. Her namesake Diana were scarce colder than this rustic maiden.
“She is like Undine,” complained Dan to his friend the vicar; “she has no soul.”
“No heart, you mean,” replied Jarner, dryly; “there you are wrong. She has a warm and loving heart. Never a tale of poverty but—”
“I know all that, sir; but I want her heart to melt to my tale, not to the whining of a sturdy mendicant.”
“I am afraid I cannot instruct you how to gain her affection, my lord; I have never felt the tender passion myself. Ho! ho! You come to a bad adviser when you seek my opinion on such points.”
This was but cold comfort, and Dan went away in despair. He likened his case to that of Pygmalion, and then took courage from such comparison, remembering that even the marble statue turned to warm flesh and blood in the end. Meanwhile, he followed his divinity about the hills, and hoped that he would gain her heart in the days to come. His wish was gratified, but in a most unexpected fashion. It was the jealous tongue of Miss Linisfarne, that first opened the eyes of Meg, and changed her from girl to woman.
Dan was not offensively conceited. He entertained a reasonably good opinion of his looks and capabilities, but did not deem himself an Apollo with whom every woman was bound to fall in love. Yet, resolutely as he strove to thrust the notion from him, he became aware in more ways than one that Miss Linisfarne looked on him with great favour. Whether it was his appearance or his conversation he was unable to determine, but the pale lady of Farbis Court showed him plainly that he had taken her heart by storm. In place of lying for hours on her couch or limiting her walk to terrace and picture-gallery, she became almost as great a pedestrian as Meg. She invited Dan to the Court on every possible occasion, she followed him to the dell on the pretext of wishing to see his caravan, and frequently formed an undesirable third in those excursions on the moorlands. And, to put the matter beyond all doubt, she showed by her altered demeanour that she was wildly jealous of Meg.
Dan began to find his life anything but pleasant. He did not love Miss Linisfarne, whom he looked on as quite an old woman, and objected strongly to her incessant attentions. She never left him alone for a single moment, and was always finding pretexts to be in his company. At first he laughed at such madness, but soon began to weary of his elderly admirer, the more so as she took to treating Meg in a very unpleasant fashion. With the instinct of a jealous woman she saw that Dan was in love with Meg, and since she could not revenge herself on the man, took every opportunity of doing so on the girl. She subjected her to all kinds of petty spite, sneered at her masculine habits, and always sent her out of the room when Dan happened to be at the Court. Meg resented this behaviour, though she was far from guessing the cause, and so went but seldom to see her benefactress. On his part Dan, learning from experience that Meg was not to be found as formerly at the Court, kept away also, and thus inflamed Miss Linisfarne’s heart with rage and envy. So far had her unrequited passion carried her that she was rapidly approaching a stage when she might be expected to be dangerous. Dan noted this fact, and kept as much as possible from intruding on her privacy. The remedy was worse than the disease.
Like the ostrich which thinks itself unseen because its head is thrust into the sand, Miss Linisfarne never deemed that her passion was patent to all Farbis. The villagers saw it, and made remarks on her age and folly; Mr. Jarner noticed it and frowned, and a rumour even reached Dr. Merle in the seclusion of his house. Only Meg was ignorant, for no one dared to say a word about Miss Linisfarne in her hearing. She was too mindful of former benefits to hear her benefactress blamed in the smallest degree.
The last to hear of it was Mother Jericho, and she mentioned it to Tinker Tim as a good joke. Instead of looking on it as such, the gipsy scowled and swore, and finally went to the dell in search of Dan. Why he should trouble himself about Miss Linisfarne and her follies it is impossible to say; but he certainly spoke freely to Dan on the subject.
“Morning, rye,” said he, striding into the dell like Hercules. “What’s all this about the old woman?”
Ardleigh looked up in surprise. He was astonished to hear the tone in which Tim spoke, and resented the scowl with which the gipsy greeted him.
“What do you mean, Tim?” he asked coldly.
“She told me,” said the Tinker, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, “that the old lady at the Court wants t’ marry ye.”
“That is news to me! And how did she, by whom you no doubt mean Mother Jericho, learn this?”
“It’s all over the place. Miss Linisfarne wants to become your wife.”
Dan did not know whether to laugh or to frown. Although he was aware that there was some truth in the rumour, he was by no means inclined to admit as much to Tim; the more so as the attitude of the gipsy was distinctly hostile, and he eyed Dan in a gloomy and threatening manner.
“Is it true, rye?” he demanded savagely.
“What business is it of yours, even if it is true?” said Dan, wrathfully, springing to his feet.
“It’s every business,” retorted the tinker, scowling; “it is—it is— By Heaven!” he cried, his passion breaking loose, “I’ll twist her neck!”
“Twist Miss Linisfarne’s neck?”
“Ay! That I shall!”
Dan advanced, and, laying his hand on the giant’s shoulder, looked at him curiously. The man was strongly moved, though by what Dan could not conjecture. Such an unexpected display of anger was all of a piece with the other mysteries connected with Miss Linisfarne.
“See here, my man,” said Dan, deliberately; “we had better understand one another. I allow no man to speak to me as you have done. You are keeping something from me.”
“It’s a lie!” said Tim, hoarsely.
Dan, in nowise moved by the insult, persisted in his questioning. “It’s the truth. How did you know my name?”
“That’s my business.”
“And mine also. I was directed to Farbis by your kinsfolk. I was met here by Mother Jericho, and a few weeks ago you called me by my name. Now you are angry because my name is connected with Miss Linisfarne’s by lying gossip.”
“Is it lying gossip?” asked Tim, eagerly ignoring the rest of the speech.
“Of course it is. I am in love with Meg. Do you think I want to marry Miss Linisfarne, who is old enough to be my mother?”
Tim drew his hand across his brow, and heaved a sigh of relief. The declaration was evidently a great relief to him. He tried to evade an answer to the other questions by talking about Meg.
“It was for the girl’s sake, rye,” said he, hurriedly. “I know you love her, and that she loves you, so I didn’t want ye to love the old woman.”
“That is untrue, Tim. I love Meg, but she does not love me.”
“She will some day, rye.”
“Mind your own business, my man,” said Dan, sharply. “Meg has nothing to do with you, or you with her. What I wish to know is, why you threaten ill to Miss Linisfarne?”
“I can’t tell ye—I can’t tell ye.”
“You must; and also how you came to know my name.”
“Ho! ho! rye! That’s easy. A pal o’ mine had a cart made at the place where your caravan was built. He saw it there, and asked whose it was, so, when they said Lord Ardleigh, he passed the word round our people that a rye was on the wing.”
“So you knew who I was from the first?” said Dan, in a vexed tone.
“Ay, that I did, my lord, and Mother Jericho also.”
“Had such knowledge anything to do with her prophecy?”
In spite of this denial, Tim looked so uneasy that Dan felt sure he was not speaking the truth. Determined to know it at any cost, he was about to ask a leading question, when Tim caught his hand and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Don’t ask me any questions, rye. When the time comes, I’ll tell ye all.”
“All these things ye wish to know—about the old lady and Dr. Merle and the prophecy.”
“When will the time come?”
“On the day ye take Meg to church,” said Tim, and with a significant nod marched away.
Dan did not attempt to stay him, but stood reflectively looking at the ground.
“I’ll speak to Jarner again,” he said, thoughtfully; “in spite of what he says, there is some mystery about Meg. If Jarner doesn’t know it, Dr. Merle does. I’ll see him.”
He lifted up his eyes, and saw the very man of whom he spoke coming down the path.
It was with considerable astonishment that Dan saw Dr. Merle approaching the dell. That so habitual a recluse should break through his customary rules, and visit a comparative stranger showed that he must be influenced by a powerful motive. What that motive might be Dan was unable to conjecture, but hurriedly fixed on the only reason likely to account for the unexpected presence of his guest. It might be, Dan thought, that Merle had heard rumours of his attentions to Meg; and, therefore, had come to demand an explanation. This Dan was quite prepared to give, and, indeed, rather congratulated himself on the opportunity thus afforded of placing matters on a proper footing. His expectation was vain, for it soon appeared from the ensuing conversation that Merle had sought an interview for an entirely different purpose.
Although it was a warm day, the wretched creature shivered as he came down the path, and blinked his eyes constantly in the unaccustomed sunshine. For so many years he had lived in that darkened room, that the access of light and the keen air rendered him uncomfortable. He was wrapped up as though it were winter, and crawled feebly along with the aid of a staff. With his pallid face, loose mouth, and red-rimmed eyes, he looked a most pitiable object, and Dan secretly wondered that this decrepit wreck should be the father of so splendid a specimen of womanhood as Meg.
“A most undesirable father-in-law,” said Dan to himself, as he went forward to assist his visitor. “But there is one comfort—he cannot live much longer. Even now he looks as though about to tumble into his grave.”
In order to pay this visit Merle had evidently omitted to take his usual dose of laudanum; but in place of such abstinence rendering his brain clear, it made him weak and irritable. The sudden cessation of the drug unstrung his nerves and clouded his intellect, so that he sank on the log, to which Dan conducted him, in a state of mental and physical collapse. His breath came in quick gasps, his hands trembled, and his lean body shook as with the palsy. In all his experience, Dan had never seen so degenerate a specimen of the human race. Much as he despised him, yet he could not refrain from pitying the creature. He was so weak and prostrate and broken up.
All this time Merle said nothing, his whole attention being taken up in getting himself settled. When on the log, he coughed, and wiped the perspiration off his brow, and shivered and shook, until able to speak. It was quite five minutes before he could do so, and all the time Dan, after a brief word of welcome, held his peace, and eyed his visitor with strong curiosity.
“Ow, ow!” coughed Merle, weakly. “What a hill that is to climb! I haven’t climbed one for years. Why do you live in this out-of-the-way place? It is quite a journey from my house.”
“Why did you not send word that you wished to see me, Dr. Merle?” said Dan, gently. “Had you done so I should have called at your house, and so saved you the journey.”
“I didn’t want you to call, young man. Meg would have asked the reason of your visit, and I do not wish her to know what I have to say.”
“Indeed! Does it then concern her?” said Dan, anxiously.
“No! It has nothing to do with her,” retorted Merle, querulously; “why should it? I wish to speak of myself, and of Miss Linisfarne, and of you.”
“Well, and what have you to say?” asked Dan, guessing from this speech that the errand had something to do with the rumours pervading Farbis.
“You must not be offended, young man.”
“I can safely promise you that,” said Dan, with veiled contempt; “nothing you could say would offend me. Pray proceed, Dr. Merle! I am all attention.”
“It is said that you are in love with Miss Linisfarne!”
“So I have heard before.”
“Is it true?” demanded Merle, eagerly, putting out one shaking hand—“is it true?”
Dan did not answer at once. That two such different individuals as Tinker Tim and Dr. Merle should display emotion in regard to Miss Linisfarne astonished him greatly. He could not conceive what influence that faded old woman could exercise over the recluse and the gipsy; the more so as neither, so far as he knew, had ever set eyes on the lady. It had been impossible to get the truth out of Tim; but there was a possibility of forcing a weak creature like Merle to explain himself. This Dan determined to do, and so spoke with forethought and deliberation.
“Is it true?” said Merle again, seeing that the young man kept silent.
“Before I answer that question I must ask you to explain your connection with Miss Linisfarne.”
Merle stared at him with a terrified expression, and could hardly force his dry lips to speak. When he did manage to find his tongue it was to tell an untruth.
“I have no connection with Miss Linisfarne. All the time she has been in Farbis I have never seen her.”
“Then why trouble to ask if I love her?”
“Because you have no right to love her,” replied Merle, vehemently. “I forbid you—I forbid you! I shall speak to Tinker Tim. I—I—”
His voice faltered and died away in his throat, for Dan had seized him by the shoulder, and was speaking to him in a very peremptory manner.
“There must be an end to this, Dr. Merle,” he said decisively. “I cannot allow you to meddle with my private affairs without having some explanation. You spoke of Miss Linisfarne—you speak of Tinker Tim. Between the three of you there is some understanding. Now, what is it?”
“I daren’t tell,” whimpered the wretched creature, thoroughly frightened by this vehemence. “There is nothing—nothing.”
“Yes, there is! Out with it, sir. Before you leave this place I must know.”
Merle half arose from his seat as to escape; but Dan, now thoroughly angry at what he regarded as an unjustifiable interference, forced him down. The man snarled and muttered. Like a rat driven into a corner he turned at bay.
“I shan’t tell you!”
“I’ll drop you into the well if you don’t,” said Dan, grimly. “I’m not going to have you and Tim interfering with my business without knowing your reasons.”
“Has Tim been here?”
“He left as you came. I wonder you did not meet him. And he asked me the same question as you have done. What business is it of yours or of his if I marry Miss Linisfarne? It has nothing to do with you.”
“Yes, it has—yes, it has! I love her—I love her!”
“How can that be, when, by your own confession, you never saw her till you came to Farbis?”
“I didn’t say that! I said that I had not seen her since she came to Farbis.”
“Indeed! Then you knew her before she settled at the Court?”
“Yes! I—that is—oh, don’t ask me any more!” said Merle, in an hysterical manner. “I can’t tell you. If Tinker Tim knew he would kill me.”
The alarm of the man was so genuine that Dan soothed him with soft words, as one would soothe a frightened child. And, indeed, Merle was little else, for the pernicious drug had effectually destroyed his manhood, and converted him into a nervous, irresponsible being.
“Don’t be afraid, Merle,” said Dan, quietly; “no one shall hurt you. I can protect you from Tim; only tell me all!”
“I cannot tell you about Tim, for I know hardly anything of him. But I can tell you my own story.”
“Very good; do so! Tim has promised to tell me his later on. Meanwhile, let me hear yours. You say you knew Miss Linisfarne?”
“Yes, twenty-three years ago, it may be more. I have quite lost count of time.”
“I don’t wonder at that,” said Dan, gravely.
“I—I only use it to soothe my pain,” said Merle, hurriedly. “It makes me dream, and forget the past. If you only knew how I have been tortured—how I am tortured by memory—how burdensome my life is to me, you would not grudge me the drug which enables me to bear my accursed existence.”
“Why are you tortured by memory? Have you committed a crime?”
“No! Do I look like a criminal! My sole crime is in having loved this woman too well. My name is not Merle—what it is does not matter. Three and twenty years ago I was a man, not a creature like I am now; but a man with a career before me. I met with Laura Linisfarne and loved her. She said she loved me, and then we were engaged. I lived in a fool’s paradise for some months, and then found out her treachery, her wickedness. She ruined my life; she made me an outcast and a bye-word. I followed her here—to the exile to which her sin had condemned her. For years I have not seen her, but watched over her agony. For every pang I have felt, she has likewise suffered, for she has no opium to dull the stings of memory. If she says she loves you, she lies. She is a viper, a devil, a fiend! Were I strong enough, I would kill her! I was a man once—now look at me!”
He sprang to his feet and stretched out his arms. A look of fury distorted his face, and he shook like a reed.
“Look at me!” he cried. “This is he that was once Richard Mallard!”
“Ah! Mallard—not Merle.”
“Oh, what have I said—what have I said?” cried Merle, with a sudden revulsion of feeling. “I did not mean to tell you my name, I—I—”
“Hush, hush, no harm is done.”
“You know my secret; I shall tell you no more. Let me go—let me go. If you would know more, ask Tim. He can tell you why I came here—how bitterly I have suffered at the hands of that woman. And now she would marry you. Avoid her—avoid her, or she will ruin you as she has done me!”
“She will not marry me. I don’t love her,” said Dan, slowly. “I am in love with your daughter Meg; I want to marry her.”
Merle looked at him with a dazed expression, then tossed up his arms, and, with a sudden access of strength, ran away up the path, laughing hysterically.
“Ha! ha! you love my daughter,” he cried, shrilly. “Go and tell Laura so! It will make her suffer. After all these years her sin has found her out. Go! go! tell her all! It will fill the measure of my revenge.”
He disappeared, still laughing loudly, and Dan could hear the echoes of that cruel mirth dying away in the distance. Astonished as he was at the way in which Merle had received his announcement, he made no attempt to follow; but, without changing his position, reflected on his course of action. His decision was soon made.
“I shall see Jarner,” he said, “and then Miss Linisfarne.”
It was the custom of Mr. Jarner to visit at Farbis Court once a week. He pitied the loneliness of Miss Linisfarne, and did all in his power to divert her from melancholy reflections, by attempting to interest her in the duties of his three parishes. His weekly conversations were generally of a parochial character, and, eager to propitiate her only friend, Miss Linisfarne feigned an interest in these local affairs, which she was far from feeling. Still, they introduced a new element into her life, and gave her an opportunity of enjoying the society of the vicar, for which she was ever grateful. Meg was constantly with her; but, though Miss Linisfarne liked such companionship, she relished infinitely more the calls of Mr. Jarner. She was more inclined to the society of men than to that of her own sex.
The unexpected appearance of Dan at Farbis wrought a revolution in her quiet life. Here was a handsome young gentleman—for she had no doubt on that point—who conversed intelligently, and who had plenty of time at his disposal to idle away at Farbis Court. Deprived for so many years of such congenial companionship, Miss Linisfarne welcomed Dan with enthusiasm, and made him free of her house. As has before been stated, she was jealous of Dan’s partiality for Meg; and, having shown the girl plainly that she did not wish a third in their conversations, managed to keep her out of the road. But, alas for her plans! When Dan found that the presence of Meg in the dreary drawing-room was no longer to be counted on, he ceased to visit the Court, as was his custom.
With the instinct of a jealous woman, Miss Linisfarne guessed the reason of his non-appearance, and was deeply angered that he should so scorn her. But she was by no means disposed to abandon him without a struggle, for, strange as it may appear, this faded beauty was really in love with the young man. Had she not been so, she would scarcely have made up her mind to marry him, and this is what she now intended to do. After due deliberation, she determined to bestow herself and her fortune on this unknown vagrant.
Such a resolution was inconceivably rash, for she knew absolutely nothing about him. That he was a gentleman she was convinced, but was quite ignorant of his character, name, station, or wealth. To marry an adventurer, was what she intended; and, though she tried to salve her conscience with the reflection that one so handsome must be desirable in all other respects, yet she could not help feeling that it would be as well to discover his antecedents before committing herself further. To this end she sent for the vicar, in the belief that he, if any one, would know something of this attractive stranger. If the inquiry proved satisfactory, she was resolved to make him her husband. To such a pitch of rashness did her mad passion bear her.
Jarner guessed that the coming interview had something to do with Dan, as he also had heard the rumour of Miss Linisfarne’s infatuation. Also he had been present when Dan was visiting, and had seen the eager looks of the lady at her guest. Needless to say he greatly disapproved of the way in which she was behaving, and resolved to speak his mind at the interview, should it turn on the subject. And, indeed, as Miss Linisfarne had never sent for him before, he was perfectly certain that it was for the purpose of asking him to aid in her schemes that she invited his presence. This the vicar did not intend to do, as he by no means desired to break off the projected match between Dan and Meg.
On his arrival at the Court, he was shown up to the picture-gallery, where he found Miss Linisfarne seated before the portrait of Sir Alurde. This was her favourite resort, for which she had quite deserted the drawing-room. For hours she gazed on that face which so resembled that of the man she loved, and glanced occasionally at a book on her lap, which set forth the history of the Elizabethan. This history she had found in the library, and on reading it had discovered that Sir Alurde and the vagrant possessed many traits in common. Yet, strange to say, it never crossed her mind that there must be a reason for such resemblance, nor did she guess that Sir Alurde was the ancestor of the man who chose to call himself Dan. Had she made such a discovery, it would have given her no pleasure, as she saw that Dan was not in love with her, and trusted to his poverty and her wealth to bring about the desired marriage.
The vicar contracted his brows as he saw how infatuated she was with the picture, for he also was aware of the resemblance. Meg had told him as a jest, and now that he knew that Dan was Lord Ardleigh, he no longer wondered at the likeness. But it was not at the portrait he looked, but at Miss Linisfarne. The change in her appearance quite astonished him, for she seemed years younger, and in the flush of her mad passion had almost regained the beauty of her youth. When Jarner appeared, she arose, with a bright smile, and came towards him with outstretched hands.
“You are much stronger, I see,” said Jarner, in reply to her greeting. “That comes of walking in the open air, and of mixing more with your fellow-creatures. Hey, ma’m! There is nothing like exercise and society for bringing back the roses to pale cheeks.”
“I think it is more than exercise or society,” replied Miss Linisfarne, joyously, and glanced at the portrait.
The vicar glanced also, but wilfully chose to misinterpret her meaning. It was his intention to make her confession as difficult as possible, and, if there was any chance, to avert it altogether.
“Hey, ma’m! Are you in love with Sir Alurde?”
“No. Not with Sir Alurde,” said Miss Linisfarne, pointedly; “but with some one who greatly resembles him.”
“And who may that be?” asked Jarner, dryly.
“Cannot you guess? I have sent for you in order to speak on this very subject.”
The vicar pretended to search his memory, and shook his head with feigned vexation.
“No, Miss Linisfarne; I cannot guess with whom you are infatuated.”
“Infatuated, sir!” she cried, starting to her feet.
“Does the word displease you, ma’m?”
“It is hardly courteous. Is love so ridiculous in a woman that you should hesitate to use the word?”
“Love!” repeated Jarner, reflectively. “I think you told me, Miss Linisfarne, that you had loved many years ago, and had lost your lover.”
“I did,” said she, paling at the irony of his accent.
“Pardon me, if my memory fails,” he continued; “but you also informed me that your love ended in disaster—that your heart was dead, and that for such reason you buried yourself in our solitudes.”
Miss Linisfarne covered her face with her hands. All the joy had died out of her eyes, and she looked the miserable woman she was.
“For twenty years and more you have lived here,” continued Jarner, ponderously, “and all that time have remained faithful to the memory of that early passion. With the details you have not seen fit to honour me; but I can guess your story.”
She lifted her haggard face in surprise, but he took no notice of the action.
“You loved and lost, ma’m, and so sought to be constant in this solitude to your dead lover. For twenty years you have been faithful. Why, then,” added the vicar, pointing to the picture,—“why, then, let that displace his image in your heart? It is sacrilege to the dead.”
“You do not understand!”
“Ay, ma’m, I understand well enough. I also have noted the resemblance which chains you to that portrait. You love the young man who calls himself Dan.”
“I do!” she cried with a bright flush. “Is there dishonour in such a love?”
“Ay, to the dead!”
“Tush! You know not of what you speak, sir. I have not made you my father confessor. I love this man. What have you to say against it? He is handsome, he is a gentleman, he is of a noble nature.”
“I grant all that, but—”
“Make no objections, Mr. Jarner, for they carry no weight with me. I love now as I never loved before. You smile! You think I am too old to set my heart on him, but I tell you that I love this man fondly, and I shall marry him.”
“Why not?” said she, pressing her hands on her heaving breast. “Do you know anything against him?”
“No, indeed; still—”
“Then there can be no obstacle to my union with him. He is poor, but I am rich. If he has no name of his own, he can take mine. What obstacle is there to our union?”
“The greatest of all,” answered Jarner, dryly; “he loves another woman.”
“Ah! you have seen as much. Yes, he loves Meg Merle, and wishes to make her his wife.”
“That he shall never do! Will he prefer that unformed girl to me—her poverty to my wealth? She shall not marry him. I love him, and will surrender him to no rival. Rival! Ha, is it I who call that girl a rival!”
“Yes, it is you; and it were wiser if you did not. She is fond of you, Miss Linisfarne; you have brought her up; she looks on you as a mother—”
“Yes, as a mother. So do not ruin her life, and destroy the memory of your kindness by seeking to marry this man. He is not for you, but for Meg.”
“I shall not give him up,” she said, doggedly; “mine he shall be. Do you think that, after all these years of sorrow, I shall willingly surrender the only chance of joy that has come to me? He shall be my husband.”
The vicar picked up his hat as to go, and bowed. “In that case, ma’m, I need not remain. I disapprove altogether of your infatuation, and shall do my best to thwart your schemes. One woman only shall he marry,—Margaret Merle.”
“You seem very interested in this match,” sneered Miss Linisfarne. “Is it of your making?”
“No. It is his own desire.”
“Who is this man?” she asked, abruptly. “Do you know his name?”
“I do, madam, but I shall not tell it to you.”
“No more, ma’m! I have wasted too many words as it is. You shall not interrupt the course of true love. He is not for you, but for Meg Merle.”
She strove to detain him, but he strode away, deeply angered at her pertinacity. She stamped her foot, and looked at the picture of Sir Alurde.
“Meg shall never marry you,” she said, thinking of Dan,—“never! never! never!”
In her then state of mind it needed but the assurance of Jarner that Dan loved Meg to change Miss Linisfarne’s passive dislike of the girl into active hatred. She had long been aware that Meg was her rival, but this confirmation by a third party showed her how easily she might lose her prize. At the same time, she was sufficiently clever to see that Meg was quite unconscious of Dan’s devotion, and hoped, by taking advantage of this fact, to draw him away from one presumably indifferent to his regard. It was a difficult and delicate task, but Miss Linisfarne deemed herself capable of carrying it through. Come what may, she was resolved that Meg should not triumph.
To forward her schemes, it was necessary that she should have an interview with Dan, and therefore sent a note to the dell requesting him to call. The young man duly received the invitation, and, though reluctant to visit a lady with whom his name was connected by gossip, could not find sufficient grounds for refusal, and so sent back to say that he would call at noon as desired. Had he known of Jarner’s interview, he might have been placed on his guard, and so refused a meeting which could only end in disaster; but Jarner was away on parochial business, and Dan was quite ignorant of his danger.
Much as he distrusted Miss Linisfarne—for by her own acts she had caused the gossip which had connected their names,—he did not think she was so passionately in love with him as to overstep all bounds of womanly modesty. He had laughed to scorn the notion of marriage put forward by Tim and Dr. Merle, deeming it beyond all probability that a gentlewoman would be so rash as to desire to link her fortunes with those of a nameless vagrant. Although Tinker Tim and the vicar knew his name, he was well assured that Miss Linisfarne was ignorant of it, and so could see no reason to believe the rumour of marriage. Dan was a cautious and astute young man, but in this case he had to measure his wits against a woman. As a natural consequence, he failed. The cleverest man is but a fool in some matters, when compared with even a silly woman. Yet Dan came through the ordeal more creditably than he might have expected.
Miss Linisfarne was by no means silly, and had all her plans prepared for the subjugation of Dan. She intended to tell him that Meg’s indifference was caused by the fact of her having another lover whom she wished to marry. There not being a representative of this mythical lover in the parish of Farbis, Miss Linisfarne decided to locate him at a safe distance, where he could not be easily found. All this was very clever, but she quite forgot that Dan’s insight into human nature was as keen as her own, and that he would find it difficult to believe that a mere child like Meg could keep secret so important a factor in her life as a future marriage. Dan was honest and straightforward, and, notwithstanding Miss Linisfarne’s fine-spun webs of sophistry, contrived in the end to break through them, though not without difficulty and pain. He failed in one respect, as his antagonist was a woman and unscrupulous; but he was successful in the end, as his strong love for Meg proved his safeguard against the wiles of this enchantress.
Miss Linisfarne received him in her own particular corner of the drawing-room. Knowing her ill health, Dan quite expected to find her stretched languidly on the couch, but was astonished, as Jarner had been, to find himself welcomed by a bright-eyed lady, alert and merry. She presided over the tea-table and invited him to be seated. Nothing loth—for his walk had given him an appetite—Dan drank tea and devoured cakes, while Miss Linisfarne chatted to him on unimportant subjects. She was too clever to introduce Meg’s name into the conversation, lest his suspicions might be aroused, and left him to make the first mention of the girl. This he did while talking of Mr. Jarner, and discussing matters incidental to his sojourn at Farbis.
“I have enjoyed my stay here very very much, thank you, Miss Linisfarne,” said Dan, in answer to a question. “You can judge of that by the months I have been encamped in the dell.”
“And what have you most delighted in?” asked Miss Linisfarne, hoping by this artful remark to lead him to talk of Meg.
“In Mr. Jarner. I have never met a character like him before.”
“No; a sporting parson is rather rare nowadays.”
“It’s not exactly his love of sport, but his whole character I admire. He is a cross between Dr. Johnson and Squire Western. A bluff, honest, hearty old man, who would put to shame many of our mincing, scented clergy. I can well understand him doing what he told me he did the other day.”
“What is that?”
“Why, he found his congregation was not large enough, and was in danger of beginning the service, like Dean Swift, with ‘Dearly beloved Roger,’ so he doffed his surplice and went out with his hunting crop to thrash in a few listeners. Ay, and he succeeded too! He thrashed the whole village. I can fancy how attentive that congregation must have been.”
“He is very amusing,” said Miss Linisfarne, laughing at this anecdote; “and has a good heart.”
“That he has,” assented Dan, heartily. “Look how kind he has been to Meg. I do not know what she would have done without yourself and Mr. Jarner.”
“Ob, I have done very little,” said Miss Linisfarne, carelessly. “It was a great pleasure to me to help the poor child. I am afraid you find her very rough and countrified?”
“Indeed, no. I think her perfection as she is. It would be a sin to turn her into a fine London lady.”
“What do you know about London ladies?”
“What indeed!” said Dan, laughing to hide his confusion. “I am only a vagabond.”
“I think we argued that question before, and disagreed upon it. You are no vagabond, though it pleases you to pass as one. By the way, you promised to tell me your name in a week or so. It is now two months since then, and I am still ignorant of it.”
“I cannot tell you at present,” muttered Dan, awkwardly; “on some future occasion I may.”
Miss Linisfarne was disappointed at this denial, but did not see her way to press the matter. Nevertheless, she skilfully made use of the opportunity to reintroduce the topic of Meg.
“It pleases you to be mysterious,” she said coldly, “and I trust your motives are straightforward.”
“I think I can answer for them. With regard to whom?”
“Meg Merle! You are constantly with her, and I do not think that it is right that you should be.”
“Why not?” asked Dan, with a frown. The significance of her tone annoyed him.
“Well, for one thing, it is not right for the girl herself; for another—her lover may take exception to your conduct.”
He had leaped to his feet, and was looking at her with angry eyes. She gazed at him with admiration, and thought she had never seen him look so handsome; yet, undeterred by his wrath, persisted in her line of conduct.
“Ah, you are astonished, I see. You did not know, then, that Meg was engaged to be married?”
“I cannot believe it.”
“Nevertheless, it is true. That is why she is so indifferent to your suit.”
“What do you mean?” said Dan, rather confused by the rapidity with which she pressed the attack.
“Oh, I am not blind! I know you are in love with her. Your devotion is quite useless, as you can see from her demeanour. She—”
“That is innocence,” he interrupted roughly. “She does not know the meaning of love. She has never thought of marriage. I do not—I cannot believe that she is engaged. Her whole life gives the lie to such an assertion.”
“You are discourteous.”
“I beg your pardon, I did not mean to be so,” he replied apologetically; “but it is impossible. You must be mistaken.”
“Ask Mr. Byrne of Silkstone if I am mistaken. Meg may deny it, but he—”
“Why should she deny it? If she is engaged to be married to this Silkstone man of whom you speak, there is no necessity to keep it secret. But I tell you it cannot be. If it were so she would have told me. She is an innocent child, who cannot keep a secret.”
“She kept this one, however.”
“Moreover, Mr. Jarner would have told me,” said Dan, not heeding the taunt.
Miss Linisfarne lost her temper. She had counted on resistance, but not on such a stubborn defence of Meg. Rising with flashing eyes, she stepped up to Dan, and, throwing aside all restraint, burst out into rapid speech. It was not wise for her to do so, but her love and jealousy carried her away, and she spoke wildly, madly—as she never would have spoken had she reflected for a moment.
“Are you blind, sir, that you so believe in this girl? I tell you, she is engaged to be married. She does not love you—she will never love you. Why should you lay your heart at her feet only to find it spurned? Give it to me—I say, give it to me.”
“To you!” cried Dan, scarcely believing his ears.
“Yes. You now know my secret. I love you! I love you! I wish to make you my husband. You are poor, but I am rich. Take me—take my money—only leave that wretched girl and come to me, who truly loves you.”
Dan stepped back a pace, and looked at her in amazement. Her face was flushed, her eyes were unnaturally bright, and her whole body trembled with emotion as she stretched out appealing hands to him. He was so utterly astonished, that for the moment he did not know what to say—what to do.
“I love you. Come to me,” she cried passionately. “You must see how I am prepared to give up all for you.”
“But I—I am not—not worthy,” he stammered.
“You are in my eyes.”
“I am poor—nameless—unknown.”
“What is that to me? I am rich—take my money. I have a name—take it as your own. With my name and my money you can make yourself known. Only love me.”
It was an extremely awkward situation. Here was Dan, standing helplessly before this impassionate woman, unable to move, almost unable to speak. He faltered, stammered, hesitated, while she with outstretched arms drew nearer. It was impossible to say how he would have extricated himself from the dilemma, had not a memory of his conversation with Merle flashed across his brain. He acted on the impulse of the moment, and flung out a hand to keep her back.
“No. It is impossible. You are mad. Think of Mallard.”
“Of Richard Mallard, whom you deceived, and deserted, and ruined!”
Before the last words left his mouth, she had fallen fainting on the floor. The name evidently recalled some painful memory, as Dan, on remembering the anguish of Merle, guessed it would. He was sorry that he had mentioned it, but, so awkwardly was he placed, that he saw no way out of the position but to act in what he considered a brutal fashion. It proved efficacious, for Miss Linisfarne lay at his feet in a swoon, and he was free to go.
Ringing the bell hastily he committed the insensible woman to the care of the astonished housekeeper, and rushed away with his brain on fire.
“She is mad! mad!” he said, as he ran down the avenue. “But what else could I do? Mallard! Mallard and Merle! What does it all mean? Only one person can solve the mystery of Miss Linisfarne, and that is Tinker Tim.”
Miss Linisfarne recovered from her swoon to find that her machinations had proved unsuccessful. She had lied in saying that Meg was engaged to be married, and she had humiliated herself at the feet of a man who scorned her. These things were sufficient in themselves to cause her to repent of her folly, but, in place of learning a lesson from such rebuffs, she became still more inflamed against the girl whom she professed to love. Enraged by her failure and humiliation, she cast about for some means whereby to punish Meg, whom she unjustly regarded as the cause of her sufferings. No one was more prone than Miss Linisfarne to lay the burden of her follies on others.
The reference by Dan to her lover of twenty years before, led her to fancy that he knew more about her life than was actually the case. She began to believe that this unknown man was well acquainted with the shameful history which had led to her retirement, and had come down to Farbis for the express purpose of recalling it to her mind. Ignorant of the identity of Dr. Merle with Mallard, she could not conceive how Dan had learned her secret, since she had confided it to no one in Farbis. Yet it was known to him, as was apparent from his utterance of the name, and he had used it in order to humiliate her to the dust. Her mad love for him gave place to rage and resentment, and she longed to find an opportunity to punish him for his disdain and knowledge.
On calm reflection, she saw that, by parting him from Meg, she could render him miserable, and so resolved to see the girl, and, by lying to her as she had to Dan, to effectually prevent their marriage. Well aware that by her own acts she had prevented Meg from visiting at the Court, she resolved to go in person to Dr. Merle’s house and see her rival. Her plan of action was not clear in her mind, but all she wanted was to achieve a lifelong separation between the pair. With this amiable object she repaired that same afternoon, alone and on foot, to the house of the doctor.
It had been Dan’s intention to speak personally to Meg; to demand from her own lips a refutation of the lies uttered by Miss Linisfarne. But on arriving at his camp he found a messenger from the vicar, requesting him to come down to the village on that evening, and this invitation Dan readily obeyed, as he was anxious to make a confidant of the vicar, and to ask his advice with regard to the revelations made by Tinker Tim, by Dr. Merle, and by Miss Linisfarne. He, therefore, deemed it politic to postpone his visit to Meg until he had seen the vicar, as in his future course he thought it would be wise to be guided by the strong common sense of Jarner. Had he suspected Miss Linisfarne’s intention of poisoning the mind of Meg, he might have altered his plans; but, as it was, he was ignorant of her schemes and quite unprepared to counteract her wiles. So far Fortune declared itself in favour of the enemy.
When Miss Linisfarne was announced as waiting for an interview, Meg was in the dark room with her father. She was astonished at the visit, as she could not think what reason her benefactress could have for calling on her. Dr. Merle was also surprised and very much alarmed, as he thought that this unexpected appearance of the woman he loved was due to a use made of his indiscreet revelations to Dan. With much agitation he implored Meg not to let Miss Linisfarne see him, though, with characteristic feebleness, he assigned merely selfish reasons for this strange request.
“I am ill—very ill; she will only disturb me,” he reiterated peevishly. “Why does she come here?”
“It is impossible to say, father,” said Meg, reflectively. “Perhaps she is sorry she has treated me so ill, and wants me to return to the Court.”
“Go, if she asks you, Meg; consent to anything, but do not let her see me.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, father! I shall not let her enter this room.”
“She may force her way in,” replied Merle, in a terrified whisper; “keep her away. Go and stop her.”
Meg departed as desired, not without some wonderment at the anxiety displayed by her father. She put it down to his retiring disposition; for, strange as it may appear, she knew nothing of Merle’s indulgence in laudanum-drinking. He was ashamed to exhibit this vice before his only child, and always locked himself in his room when indulging in a debauch. Meg only knew these frequent retirements as caused by a mysterious illness, and never for a moment suspected that they were due to his own vices. Indeed, had she been told she would have been none the wiser, as she was unacquainted with even the name of laudanum. Merle’s refusal to see Miss Linisfarne was quite in keeping with his usual habits; so, after a momentary wonder at his agitation, Meg dismissed the subject from her mind, and went into the next room to see her visitor.
Miss Linisfarne, arrayed in black, and thickly veiled, arose to meet her, but did not come forward with any greeting. On the contrary, she stood still as any statue, and looked steadily at the splendid beauty of the young girl. It was so undeniable that she recognized the inferiority of her faded charms at once, and sank back in her chair with a sigh. This Meg interpreted as a sign of sorrow that they had been parted, and with great tenderness took the hand of—as she deemed her to be—her friend. The situation was not without a suspicion of irony.
“I am so glad to see you, Miss Linisfarne,” she said, kissing the elder woman. “I was afraid you were angry with me, and so kept away from the Court.”
“It was for your own good, Meg, that I was angry.”
“For my own good!” repeated Meg, rather astounded at this assertion. “What do you mean, Miss Linisfarne? Did I disobey you in anyway, that you banished me from Farbis Court? Was my conduct distasteful to you, that you so reproved me? What do you mean by saying your anger was for my own good?”
Miss Linisfarne smiled under her veil at the indignation of the girl, and uttered only one word in reply. It had not the effect she anticipated.
“Dan!” she said, with much significance.
“What about Dan?” demanded Meg, in a puzzled tone.
“It was on his account I wished you to keep away from the Court.”
“I don’t understand!”
“No, poor child!” said Miss Linisfarne, in a pitying tone. “How can you, with your youth and innocence and provincial education, be expected to understand the baseness of man?”
“If you mean that Dan is base,” replied Meg, bluntly, “I don’t believe it. He is as good a man as Mr. Jarner.”
“I am afraid not, Meg.”
“You need not be afraid, Miss Linisfarne. I have seen Dan daily for the last three months, and every day I have grown to like him better.”
“Are you in love with him?” sneered Miss Linisfarne.
Meg laughed heartily. Such an idea had never entered her mind, and she thought Miss Linisfarne was joking.
“Of course I am not in love with him,” she said, smiling; “why, we are like brother and sister.”
“You think so, but he does not. I tell you, Meg, he is a dishonourable man.”
“And I tell you he is not!”
“He has a brave defender, I see! But what do you say of a man who professes to love two women at the same time?”
“I should call him a scoundrel. But such a thing is impossible. No one can love two women at once.”
“Dan can,” retorted Miss Linisfarne, in a taunting manner; “he loves you, and professes to love me.”
“Stop, stop!” cried Meg, with a bewildered expression of countenance. “What do you say? Dan loves me?”
“That is impossible! He has never, in any way, hinted at such a thing.”
“No! Because he was afraid of my anger.”
“Of your anger!”
“Yes! He came to Farbis Court yesterday and declared that he loved me—that he wished to make me his wife.”
“Oh, I cannot believe it,” said Meg, jealously.
“Nevertheless, it is true! He proposed to marry me; but I refused his offer with scorn.”
“Why did you do that?”
Miss Linisfarne raised her veil, and showed a face inflamed with anger. Having once committed herself, she did not measure her words, and raged on without considering the harm she was doing. The belief Meg had in Dan enraged her, and she was determined to blacken his character in the girl’s eyes, so that any tenderness Meg might have towards him should be crushed in its infancy.
“Why did I do that?” she cried, with rapid speech. “Because his offer was an insult. He said that he loved you; in every action he has shown that he loved you. Fool that you are, do you think a man would stay in this place for weeks and weeks had he not been influenced by your presence? He was in love with me also—the base, dishonourable villain!”
“If so, why did he ask you to be his wife?” said Meg, calmly, though her heart was beating wildly.
“Because he is a base and dishonourable man. He loved you for your looks, child, but he wished to marry me for my money.”
“I tell you it is true,” resumed Miss Linisfarne, vehemently. “Why should I, who have been a mother to you, tell a falsehood? This man has insulted us both. Now that I have repelled him he will come to you with loving words, and you—what will you say?”
“If he has done what you say, I shall treat him with scorn.”
“Do you not believe me?”
“No, Miss Linisfarne, I do not,” replied Meg, facing round with great indignation. “I do not believe your story. If Dan proposed to you he does not love me. If he loves me as you say, he did not propose to you. I shall know the truth from his own lips.”
“Will you ask him?” demanded Miss Linisfarne, rather alarmed at the turn affairs had taken.
“Of course I shall ask him. And, what is more, I shall believe his answer.”
“You love him, girl—you love him!”
“I do. Until you spoke I only felt like a sister to him, but now you have put his conduct in a new light, and I feel what I never felt before. I do love him, and on his answer shall depend the happiness or the misery of my life.”
Thus Miss Linisfarne, by her jealousy, had brought about the very catastrophe she desired to avoid. She recognized that her wiles were worse than useless before the honest character of the girl, and silently admitted that she was again beaten. She had failed with Dan, now she failed with Meg. Only retreat remained.
“You fool!” she said cruelly. “Ask him, and believe his lies. Your misery dates from that moment.”
She swept from the room with a haughty carriage, and left Meg bewildered and afraid.
When Dan explained to Jarner the equivocal position in which he was placed by the folly of Miss Linisfarne, the vicar urged him to end all mysteries by declaring his name and rank. Also to ask Meg to be his wife, and thus ascertain, beyond all question, the state of her feelings. Miss Linisfarne’s story of an engagement to Byrne of Silkstone was scouted by Jarner with much wrath.
“What can the woman be thinking of?” he said. “The whole story is false—there is not even a man in Silkstone called Byrne. She must have known that you would tell me this, and that I would be able to deny it.”
“No doubt she thought that, in the revulsion of feeling caused by her false word, I would ask her to marry me.”
“Very probably. I do not so much blame as pity her. The poor woman suffers from hysteria. When she comes to her senses she will be sorry enough for her behaviour.”
“I don’t know so much about that, sir. Remember, she is a woman with a past. A woman with a past is capable of anything in the present.”
“Ay, but we know nothing of her past. She may be more sinned against than sinning.”
“Merle—or, to use his real name, Mallard—does not seem to think so.”
“A poor creature that, my lord. A man who would sink, as he has done, because a woman chose to jilt him, is a miserable specimen of humanity. I should like to know his story.”
“So should I, and the story of Miss Linisfarne and of Tinker Tim.”
“The last-named person can gratify your curiosity,” said Jarner. “Take my advice, and declare yourself. Then ask Meg to be your wife, and, when all is accomplished, Tim will tell his story. I agree with you that there is a mystery, but Tim holds the key thereto.”
“Perhaps Meg won’t accept me as her husband.”
“Try,” said the vicar, significantly, and pushed the young man out of the room.
This action sounds inhospitable; but the hour was late and the vicar weary, so he thus hinted strongly his wish to be alone. Dan, in nowise offended, for he was used to the vicar’s blunt speech and blunt ways, accepted the hint in its true spirit, and returned to his camp.
There was but little sleep for him that night. His thoughts were principally taken up with the curious fulfilment of the prophecy of Mother Jericho. Much as he despised superstition and ridiculed palmistry, he could not but admit that the sibyl had forecast the future with remarkable accuracy. She had predicted that he would meet his fate at the Gates of Dawn, and there he had seen Meg, whom he now designed to make his wife. The assertion that he would love one woman, and be loved by another whom he would dislike, had been fulfilled to the letter by the declaration of Miss Linisfarne. She had yellow hair streaked with grey, and hence Mother Jericho’s warning to beware of gold and silver. So far all had occurred exactly as she foretold; but there was more to come. Miss Linisfarne was to seek to hurt him through Meg, and there was fire and flame and brave deeds. Also a false father, and a false mother. These yet unfulfilled events were a source of great perplexity to him, and he determined to nullify at least the first by at once declaring his passion to Meg. When they understood one another, he hoped that Miss Linisfarne would be powerless to harm him through his promised wife. But all this depended on the acceptance or refusal of his suit by Meg.
After a restless night he walked down to the beach for a swim, and left Simon and Peter to guard the dell. As he passed through the Gates of Dawn, at the hour of sunrise, he beheld Meg coming up from the seashore. Again the golden glory of the day burned behind her, but she no longer sang, nor did she dance before the sun like Aurora. On the contrary, her eyes were downcast, her face sorrowful, and she attempted to pass Dan without a greeting. The omission vexed him, and he blocked her path by standing before her. Courtesy forbade her to force her way past him, so she paused irresolutely, and looked at him reproachfully. Astonished at this unusual behaviour, and rightly ascribing it to the influence of Miss Linisfarne, Dan was the first to speak. He wasted no time in idle talk, but went straight to the point.
“Meg!” he said, looking at her anxiously, “what is the matter? Have I offended you, that you would pass me by as a stranger?”
“I have nothing to say,” she murmured. “Let me pass, please.”
“Not till you tell me how I have been so unfortunate as to offend you.”
“You have not offended me. I have no right to control your actions.”
“Then Miss Linisfarne has poisoned your mind against me.”
Meg lifted her eyes, and looked at him sorrowfully. Boldly as she had defended him when absent, she could not help believing that there was some truth in the assertions of Miss Linisfarne. Dan she had only known for a few months, while Miss Linisfarne was the close friend of years, therefore it was only natural she should attach more weight to the assertions of the latter than to those of the former. Experience only can instruct as to the proper estimate of a friendship.
“Miss Linisfarne told me all,” she said, with great dignity.
“Can you ask me?” replied Meg, reproachfully. “Does not your memory recall your words and acts?”
“I really do not understand you,” said Dan, much bewildered by this speech. “What have I said or done to you that you should thus reproach me?”
“It is not what you said to me, Dan. I have no fault to find with you in any way, as I told Miss Linisfarne. But she says you called at Farbis Court, and—”
“Go on,” said Dan, seeing she hesitated. “I admit I called at the Court.”
“And there you asked Miss Linisfarne to be your wife.”
It was all he could say, being dumbfounded by the accusation, which he guessed was made by Miss Linisfarne.
With her face suffused with blushes, Meg continued to speak in a low, nervous tone. Since she had discovered that she loved Dan, she felt ill at ease in his presence, and the subject on which she was forced to speak was uncongenial. The situation was most trying to a modest girl like Meg; but her brave spirit did not falter in fulfilling what she considered to be her duty. Therefore, much as she disliked the task, she did not shrink from the performance. Dan guessed all this, and admired her nerve.
“Yes. Miss Linisfarne told me how you wished to marry her for the sake of her fortune. She said you were poor and nameless, and that you wished to improve your condition by marriage. Oh, Dan, I never thought you were so base!”
“Nor am I,” he replied, frankly. “It is quite untrue that I wish to marry Miss Linisfarne. On the contrary— But that is neither here nor there. Though she has attempted to blacken my character in your eyes, I shall say nothing against her. Do you believe this story, Meg?”
“I told her I did not; but—” She faltered, and looked away.
Angered at the opinion she held of him, which was so galling to his proud nature, Dan caught her hands.
“Look me in the eyes, Meg, and say if you believe me to be so base.”
“I don’t think you are base; but you might be tempted—”
“True; but not by Miss Linisfarne. You know better than that, Meg, I’ll swear. Look me in the eyes, and tell me if you believe this story.”
In the steady eyes which met hers, Meg read the truth. All the lies of Miss Linisfarne faded from her memory. With the instinct of a true and loving heart, she recognized that Dan spoke the truth.
“I believe you, Dan,” she said, frankly. “Miss Linisfarne made a mistake.”
“Miss Linisfarne is— Well, well! never mind her at present. No, you need not try to get away, Meg. I have to ask you a question. Can you not guess what it is?”
“No. I—that is—”
“I see you can. Yes, Meg. Poor and friendless and nameless and homeless as I am, I wish you to be my wife.”
“My loved and honoured wife. It is you that have kept me so long at Farbis. I care nothing for Miss Linisfarne or her money, and a great deal for you. Dearest, can you accept my love?”
“But I am poor, and—”
“Well! Am I not poor also? I can only offer you a caravan! Come, Meg, will you be a poor man’s wife? You do not speak. They say that silence gives consent. Meg, dearest wife!”
He drew her unresistingly towards him, and with flushed cheeks and bright eyes she lay passively in his arms. He bent down to whisper—
“Will you be my wife, Meg?”
She looked up into his face, but uttered no word. Nor was speech needed, for he saw in her eyes the answer he desired. There, in the lonely Gates of Dawn, where he had first met her, did he touch her lips with his own. A great joy filled the hearts of both. Emotion rendered them dumb, and they could only look silently into one another’s eyes.
“Meg, my darling wife!”
“Remember, I am a poor wanderer, and you will have a hard life!”
“Not if it is passed with you,” she whispered.
“I haven’t even a name!”
“Take mine. I love you, Dan! I did not know it till Miss Linisfarne spoke. Then, when I thought you were to be hers, I felt angered. I knew then that you were everything to me. In a single moment the whole of my life seemed to change, and all because I love you.”
He kissed her again. But why strive to describe the indescribable? To relate a love episode is foolish. Words are too poor to tell all. It were better to let the reader imagine the looks, and words, and joy of these two. They felt in that moment the perfect happiness which comes but once in a lifetime to man or woman. Earth was heaven, and they the angels who dwelt therein. After a sacred silence, which lasted it seemed ages, Dan was the first to speak. Having gained his end, he was now ready to make confession.
“Meg, I have told you a falsehood.”
She drew away quickly with a startled look in her eyes, and faltered out the first thought in her mind.
“No, no; it has nothing to do with Miss Linisfarne. Do not look so shocked. It is not a very dreadful story. Do you know who I am, Meg?”
“Yes; you are Dan.”
“No; I am not Dan. Nor am I poor; nor am I a vagrant. I wooed you as a poor man because I wanted a wife who loved me for myself. You have done so, my dearest, and now I can confess my deception. My name is—can you not guess?”
“No. How strangely you speak! Tell me! Who are you?”
“Meg, Meg! whom do I resemble?”
“Sir Alurde,” said she, quickly. Then, with a sudden light breaking in on her mind, “Then he was your ancestor?”
“Ah, you have guessed my secret. Yes, Meg, my real name is Francis Breel.”
“Precisely. And you, my dearest, who took poor Dan for his own worth, will be Lady Ardleigh of Farbis Court.”
If this letter is wild, and incoherent, and rhapsodical, be sparing of your astonishment and blame. A scribe in my state of mind is not responsible for his epistles. Therefore be patient and read this letter carefully, for herein you will find a reason for these excuses. If you do not find my explanation all-sufficient, then you are not the sympathetic friend I took you for. What, indeed, is the use of friendship if it does not encourage and sympathize and congratulate? Were you in love—which you are not, judging from your cynical letters—I would patiently listen to your maunderings, so hearken to mine. If you wonder at this preamble learn the reason in three sentences. I love her! She loves me! We are engaged. Here I consider you have an ample explanation.
Now, do not repeat that time-honoured sneer, “I told you so,” and chuckle cynically over my capture by Cupid. It is true that he has chained me, but I glory in such bonds. Did you but see her face and hear her voice you would no longer wonder at my surrender. Who conquers Mars may be beaten by Venus. There is a classical nut for your cracking.
Doubtless you consider events have moved speedily, seeing I have thus wooed and won my future wife in so short a space of time. You are perfectly right in such supposition. The events of a year have been crammed into seven days. Every hour has brought forth a surprise, and the result is—as above. My position has been anything but pleasant of late; but now I trust my troubles are over, though, according to the unfulfilled portion of Mother Jericho’s prophecy, the worst are still to come. A pleasant prospect, truly! but one rendered endurable by my present happiness.
Miss Linisfarne is the parent of my troubles and happiness. I told you about her in my last letters. A faded beauty in ill-health, who is my tenant at the Court. Ignorant of my identity, she thought I was simply a decayed gentleman, reduced to poverty and to the shelter of a caravan. With that inconsistency which is so noticeable a feature of the sex, she ignored my vagabondage, and, in the character of a broken-down gentleman, invited me to the Court. For some inexplicable reason she took a violent fancy to me, and ultimately proposed to marry me. You look surprised, and frown,—the first, at the information; the second, that I should impart it to you, and thus betray a woman’s folly.
As a matter of fact, unless I tell you all I can tell you nothing, and so must be content to accept your censure. I would not speak of such a thing to others; but to you, who are my second self, and have been the receptacle of my confidences since we were at Eton, I am surely justified in making the revelation. And, after all, my friend, you can put away those wire-drawn notions of honour, as Miss Linisfarne is not worthy of being considered in any way. She is a base and designing woman. You must agree with this estimate of her character—harsh though it seems—when I tell you that she tried to lower Meg in my eyes, and almost succeeded in blackening my character to Meg. Such uncalled-for malignancy is, to my mind, worthy of blame. She must be beaten with her own weapons, punished for her spiteful behaviour, and generally condemned—at all events in this letter, which is strictly confidential.
It is useless for me to attempt to fathom her character. Originally it may have been a noble one, but twenty years of solitude have warped it strangely. Dr. Merle, who is the father of Meg, made a confession to me the other day. He heard a rumour that I was to marry Miss Linisfarne, and thereupon came to tell me that I was not to do so. He justified this declaration by the confession that his real name was Mallard—that he had been engaged to Miss Linisfarne twenty years ago, and that she had ruined his life. More than this he refused to tell me, but said Tinker Tim could reveal all. The gipsy declined confession until I married Meg; so, as I intend to do so shortly, I hope to be fully informed of all these mysteries. As I surmised, there is a connection between Tim and Dr. Merle and Miss Linisfarne; but what it is I cannot guess, so must possess my soul in patience until the gipsy chooses to open his mouth.
After my interview with Merle—or Mallard, as that is his real name—I received a message from Miss Linisfarne asking me to call and see her. I went unwillingly, as I was by no means prepossessed in her favour by the revelation of the doctor. The interview was of the most painful character. She said that Meg was engaged to a certain Byrne of Silkstone, and finally offered me her hand, her name, and her wealth. I refused all three, and, not knowing how to extricate myself from so awkward a position, uttered the name of Mallard. Its effect was magical. She fainted, and I, having committed her to the care of her housekeeper, hastened away. I need hardly say that nothing will induce me to set foot again in her house.
Much perplexed at my position, I consulted Mr. Jarner, as he is gifted with good common sense, and is remarkably shrewd in giving advice. He ascribed her strange conduct to hysteria, and said there was no truth in her assertion that Meg was engaged—nay, more, that Byrne of Silkstone was a myth. Why Miss Linisfarne should tell such falsehoods and offer to marry me I cannot say; but, as I remarked before, it is useless to attempt to fathom her character. My own opinion is, that seclusion has tended to unhinge her mind and destroy her self-control. No sane person would have acted as she has done. From charity, therefore, let us give her the benefit of the doubt, and say that she is mad.
Yet there is a method in her madness which is hurtful to those whom she designs to injure. I am one of those unfortunates. When she found that I refused to marry, her love changed to hate, and she is a living example of the truth of Congreve’s couplet—
“Heav’n has no rage like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
With a view, therefore, to blast my happiness, she sought Meg, and lied to her as she did to me. Declared that I wished to marry her for the sake of her wealth, that I was a base villain, an escaped criminal, a nameless outcast, and made me out to be the most abandoned of mankind. Meg retorted with spirit, and defended me, but could not help thinking that there might be some truth in these accusations. I can hardly blame her for such belief. She knew nothing, or comparatively nothing of me, whereas Miss Linisfarne has been her friend and benefactress for years.
Unfortunately for Miss Linisfarne and fortunately for myself, I chanced to meet Meg at the Gates of Dawn, and speedily disabused her mind of all those malignant accusations. I denied that I had asked Miss Linisfarne to marry me because I wanted her money, and, in proof of the absurdity of such an idea, confessed my name and rank. Before doing so, however, I asked Meg to be my wife, and she, believing my bare word, accepted my offer. Can you wonder, then, that I should love and honour and esteem a woman who was prepared to marry a nameless outcast for his own worth? She is as simple and loving as a child, and I consider myself the most fortunate of men in winning her golden heart. What is rank, or title, or wealth compared with such pure love! She loves me, not my worldly advantages. Confess now, cynic as you are, that I have chosen wisely. Ah, Jack, the noblest gift that God can bestow on a man is the gift of a pure good woman’s heart. I have gained this pearl without price, and henceforth have nothing better to gain from heaven.
Meg was somewhat alarmed at finding I was King Cophetua in disguise. The title frightens her, and she is afraid she will not be worthy of such high rank. Not worthy, indeed! Could I place a crown instead of a coronet on her brow, it would be far below her deserts. She is a noble brave pure woman, who will enable me to fight the battle of life, and do what good lies in my power. I have no fear of her sinking under the burden of nobility, as did that puling minx who married the Lord of Burleigh. When Meg becomes more accustomed to the idea, when she is my wife, you will see that she will bear her honours nobly. Her beauty, her heart, her talents, her charms all fit her for such a station. Even you, Jack, fastidious as you are, will confess that I have the fairest and most loyal wife in the three kingdoms—ay, in the world.
But enough of these rhapsodies, of which you must be tired. Let me descend from heaven to earth, and talk of meaner things. Dr. Merle gave his consent in a scared sort of way, and did not seem to know what to make of it. He is a poor feeble creature, with a brain sodden with the drug he takes. Notwithstanding my offer to provide for him, he declared his intention of remaining at Farbis, which, after all, I think is the best place for him. He is more fitted for a hermitage than for the world, as his vice has overmastered his brain and mind and has ruined his will and self-control. Every time I see him, I wonder how such a puny creature ever became the father of Meg. The late Mrs. Merle, or rather Mrs. Mallard, must have been a fine creature. I asked Meg about her, but she does not remember her mother, who died during her infancy. As Meg is close on twenty, this remark proves to me that Merle was not so inconsolable over the treachery of Miss Linisfarne as he pretends to be, for he must have married very soon after she jilted him. I can only suppose that he was disappointed in his wife, and, when she died, came to Farbis with his child to be in the neighbourhood of his first love. Yet he never attempted to see her, nor does Miss Linisfarne know that Dr. Merle is the lover of her youth. From his speedy marriage and subsequent retirement to Farbis you can see how feeble is his character. There is not a drop of his blood in the veins of Meg. That true fearless nature must be inherited from her mother. But how could a woman like Meg have married a rat like Merle! This thing puzzles me greatly.
Mr. Jarner was delighted with my success, and congratulated me on gaining the heart of Meg. He considers me the most fortunate of men, and insisted on my drinking the best half of a bottle of port, in honour of the event. He is a splendid old man, and quite a character. With all his love of horses and dogs and sporting, he is deeply religious, and holds a fairer creed than many of those who use their outward holiness to cloak a mean soul. None other than he shall marry Meg and I. If you like to come down and be best man, just say so. I assure you Jarner is a parson worth meeting.
I don’t know if Miss Linisfarne has learned of our engagement. She must be greatly angered at the downfall of her scheme to part us. At all events, she gives no sign, but remains shut up at the Court. Meg is sorry for her, as is only natural; but I cannot feel it in my heart to pity so malignant a creature. Unless, indeed, she is mad, which puts a different complexion on the affair.
As soon as my engagement was an accomplished fact, I went in search of Tinker Tim to tell him of it, and ask for an explanation of the mysteries. Unfortunately he has gone away on business connected with his fighting propensities, and will not be back for a week. However, I saw Mother Jericho, and told her of the accomplishment of her prophecy. She chuckled and leered like a wicked old fairy godmother, then damped my joy by hinting that my troubles were not yet over.
“A false father, a false mother. Fire and flame, and brave deeds,” she croaked,—“all these must be before you take your dearie to church. But you’ll win through it all, and be happy. Your children and grandchildren shall sit on your knee, and she shall be by your side for forty years and more.”
Can you conceive anything more perplexing? Having seen the first part of her prophecy fulfilled, I am bound to believe the second. Evil is coming, but it can only come through Miss Linisfarne. She is malignant enough for anything, but at present gives no sign of her intentions. What do you make of the prophecy, Jack? “False father, false mother, fire and flame, and brave deeds.” It is a riddle of the Sphinx. I can only leave its solution to Tim; but, at all events, I am happy to think that peace will come in the end. One does not appreciate joy without sorrow, so I am willing to undergo the troubles prophesied by the sibyl for the sake of being blessed with the last part of the prediction. All these ills are to take place before marriage, and, as I propose to be wedded in the autumn, there is not much time for their fulfilment. “False father, false mother, fire, flame, and brave deeds”—I leave the solution to your quick wits, my friend.
Here I must close this long letter. Write and congratulate me, and say if you will come down to assist at the termination of my strange wooing. I am so happy, Jack, that I can write no more, so must leave you to guess the joy of your attached friend—
It is difficult, nay impossible, to alter in one day the habit of years. Meg had been accustomed to repair daily to Farbis Court from her early girlhood, and, now that Miss Linisfarne had so pointedly requested her to stay away, found her life disorganized. She still roamed the moor, in the company of Dan, and was to all appearance satisfied to see nothing of Miss Linisfarne; but in her heart she regretted the breach between them, and missed greatly her daily visit. Miss Linisfarne had behaved kindly for many years to the girl, and it was not in the nature of Meg to cherish animosity towards one to whom she owed much. Regarding her benefactress as a second mother, she was disposed to overlook the past, and make the first advance towards a reconciliation. This project she unfolded to Dan.
“I cannot bear to think of her all alone in that great house,” said Meg, “and, as I owe her more than I can ever repay, it is only right that I should see her.”
“I am afraid your visit will not be welcome,” said Dan, dubiously. “She no longer looks on you as her protégée, remember, but as a woman who has thwarted her desires.”
“Still, I shall call,” insisted Meg; “if she refuses to see me, or to be reconciled, I can come away again. But at least I shall have done my duty. Indeed, she has been like a mother to me. All I know is due to her and to Mr. Jarner.”
“What does he say, Meg?”
“He thinks I ought to seek a reconciliation.”
“In that case, I approve of your visit. What the vicar says must be right. Go and see Miss Linisfarne, my darling. It is like your kind heart to overlook her behaviour.”
“Don’t speak so harshly of her, Lord Ardleigh.”
“For your sake, I won’t,” said Dan, promptly; “let us say no more about her, Meg. Call when you please; but I fancy your embassy will be unsuccessful.”
“Oh, I hope not! I trust not! In spite of all that has passed I love her still, Lord Ardleigh.”
“Meg! You have called me Lord Ardleigh twice.”
“Oh, I forgot! Frank, then.”
“I don’t like Frank either. Call me Dan.”
“But I cannot go on calling you Dan all your life.”
“Why not? It is the name I like best, for under it I won your love. And, indeed, Meg, I have been called Dan for so many months, that I no longer know myself as Francis Breel, or as Lord Ardleigh.”
“Very well,” said Meg, coquettishly, “I shall call you Dan in private, when you are very, very good. Oh, Dan.”
The reason of this exclamation can be easily imagined. He who fails to guess it, is no true lover. Under the able tuition of Dan, the girl soon learned to know what love was. They were ideal lovers, and no quarrel occurred to mar the tranquillity of those golden days. Cupid was king then, and they his humble worshippers and obedient subjects.
Having thus obtained the consent and approbation of Dan and the vicar, Meg repaired to Farbis Court. It was rather late, and the dusk was closing in, for she had been all the afternoon at the gipsy camp in the company of her lover. He left her on the brow of the hill at her own request, as she wished to see Miss Linisfarne that evening. Dan wished her to postpone her visit until next day; but Meg was resolute. She had already put off the call too long, and was determined to see and comfort the lonely woman that very evening.
“It is only six o’clock, Dan,” she said, in answer to his entreaties, “and I can easily be home before seven. It is three weeks since I saw her, so I must go at once.”
“Then I shall be with you. You keep me by your side all day. If I do not call in the evening, I shall not see her at all.”
“At least let me accompany you to the park gates.”
“No. There is no necessity. I can go myself, as I have always done. No one will touch me in Farbis. Good night, Dan. No. Only one kiss.”
Thus they parted, and Meg ran down the hill in the twilight. Dan watched her with some anxiety, and felt an unaccountable presentiment of evil. He did not think for a moment that Miss Linisfarne would harm the girl, else he would not have consented to her going to the Court. But there was a sense of uneasiness in his breast, for which he could not account. He looked towards Farbis Court, dark and forbidding under the hill. The sight did not lighten his spirits.
“I hope I am wise in letting her go,” he said aloud. “Pshaw! Miss Linisfarne is foolish, but not wicked. Meg is all right. But I’ll call at the house after supper, and see if she is back, and also ask the result of her mission. She will fail, I fear; Miss Linisfarne is not the woman to forgive easily.”
Thus reassuring himself, he returned to his dell to prepare supper. Nevertheless the presentiment of evil still lurked in his mind, and he did not make so cheery a meal as usual. Had he only known what was taking place at the Court at that moment, he would no longer have wondered at his expectation of coming evil. It would have been wiser to trust a sparrow to a cat, than Meg to the clutches of Miss Linisfarne on that evening. A woman scorned is dangerous.
She was pacing up and down the long drawing-room, with clasped hands, and a look of baffled rage on her face. Innumerable candles lighted the room brilliantly, and were reflected in the dusty mirrors. Miss Linisfarne, with dishevelled hair, looked at herself in the glass, and laughed bitterly at the wreck of her beauty.
“No wonder he would not look at me,” she said despairingly. “Old and haggard and wrinkled before my time. Had ever woman so miserable an existence as mine? Will that unhappy episode of my life ever haunt me? That man knows it, and knows Mallard. Then there is the other. Ah, where is he? I was a fool to leave him; but I have been punished for my folly—bitterly punished. Fierce as he was, surely the spectacle of this wreck would satiate his hatred. But he is dead—dead. I have not seen nor heard of him for twenty years. He is dead, with my dead past.”
She paused and walked rapidly up and down the dusty room. In her loose white robe she looked like a phantom. With her flashing eyes and restless gestures, she seemed like a mad woman. In truth her brain was not quite sane. Long seclusion and incessant fretting had rendered her irresponsible, and she frequently gave way to fits of rage which were scarcely to be distinguished from insanity. Ordinarily languid and weak, she possessed at these times the strength of a man. She was dangerous, and knew she was dangerous. She was mad, but did not know it. Nor did any one else. Only when she was alone did she give way to these paroxysms—as on the present occasion.
“If I only had that girl here, I would kill her!” she panted. “I would crush her life out, and stamp out the beauty of her face! He loves her beauty as once the other loved mine. Oh, that I could mar and spoil it! I hate her! I hate her!”
Leaning against the wall, exhausted with her passions, she looked as though in a dying condition. The fit was ended for the moment, and, weak with her late exertion, she threw herself on her couch by the oriel.
At that moment, Meg entered the room. She was astonished at the blaze of light, and wondered where her friend could be.
“Miss Linisfarne! Miss Linisfarne!”
The woman on the couch heard and recognized the voice. A fierce thrill of joy shot through her; but she did not move. She did not even raise her face from the couch, but mentally repeated to herself—
“She is here! She is in my power!”
Unaware of the wrath which possessed her hostess, Meg came forward and knelt by the couch. She was deeply sorry to find Miss Linisfarne in so prostrate a condition, and strove to comfort her.
“Miss Linisfarne, it is I. It is Meg. I have come to see you, and tell you how sorry I am that we quarrelled. Won’t you speak to me?”
By this time Miss Linisfarne was more composed, and, with the cunning of a mad woman, concealed the hatred she felt for her visitor. Yet, when she looked at Meg with glittering eyes, the girl started back in horror. The invalid appeared dangerous; but of her Meg felt no fear—as yet.
“Miss Linisfarne! Are you ill?”
“Ill, child? I am very ill,” replied Miss Linisfarne, in a hurried voice. “See how bright my eyes are; feel how hot my hands are. Fever, child—fever.”
“Lie down again, and let me get you a cooling drink—your medicine.”
“No medicine will do me any good, child. I am dying.”
“You must not talk like that, Miss Linisfarne,” said Meg, soothingly; “you are only excited and feverish. Lie down again. Please do.”
“Why are you here?” asked Miss Linisfarne, taking no notice of the gentle request.
“I came to say how sorry I am that—”
“There, there, child—say no more about it.”
“You forgive me?”
“Yes. I forgive you. See, I kiss you. Of course I forgive you.”
She pressed a Judas kiss on Meg’s brow, where her lips seared like fire. Glancing hurriedly round the room, she wondered how she could harm the girl. Here, it was useless; the servants were within call, they would hear here. She must get the girl to some other part of the house, and there— Yes. In that moment she formed a plan, and proceeded to carry it out. No fox was so cunning as she, at that moment.
“So you are to marry Lord Ardleigh, child?”
“Yes. You know him, then.”
“I was told—I was told. Ha! ha! No wonder he was like the picture of Sir Alurde.”
“Sir Alurde is his ancestor,” said Meg, wondering at the strange manner of her hostess.
“Yes, yes! And you are to be Lady Ardleigh! I am glad he means well, child. Yes, I thought his doings were evil. Poor man! Ha, ha!”
“Dear Miss Linisfarne, lie down, and let me call the housekeeper.”
“No, no! I shall be better presently. Let me get up! I am quite strong. Hush, child; not a word! Let me whisper in your ear! I have a wedding present for you.”
“A present for me!”
“Yes, I am going to give you the portrait of Sir Alurde. I asked Lord Ardleigh, and he said I could do so.”
“Have you seen him?” asked Meg, rather astonished that Dan had said nothing to her about it.
“Yes, yes! The other day! Did he not tell you? I have had the portrait taken from the gallery and placed in a room. It looks splendid, child! Sir Alurde is a king among men. Come and see him.”
She sprang up from the couch, and seized a candle from one of the sconces. Meg tried to restrain her; but Miss Linisfarne insisted in going. In order to humour her, and in the hope that she might afterwards be more amenable to reason, Meg agreed to accompany her; and, with Miss Linisfarne leading the way, and bearing the candle, they left the drawing-room. Meg had no idea that the woman was mad, as she had no experience of lunacy. She certainly thought her conduct strange, but felt no fear, and humoured her as she would a child. Had she only guessed the truth, what horrors might have been averted!
Up the stairs went Miss Linisfarne, chuckling over the success of her strategy. She led Meg far away from the inhabited portion of the house to the west wing, which was shut up and barred. Evidently she had been there lately, for a bunch of keys hung at her girdle, and with one of these she unlocked the doors. In the darkness only made more profound by the glimmer of that one candle, Meg began to feel a little afraid.
“Where are you taking me to, Miss Linisfarne?” she said, shrinking back.
“To see Sir Alurde’s portrait! It is only a little way now! Come, child! Come, I say!” she added, savagely seizing the girl’s wrist. “You must see my wedding present. Ah, my dear, a bonny bride you will make!”
Now, thoroughly terrified, Meg strove to release herself from the clutch of her hostess, as she felt certain that something was wrong. But Miss Linisfarne now had the strength of madness in her, and hurried the girl along recklessly. The walls of the passage were hung with faded arras, that bellied out with the wind. In the dim light of the one candle the figures of huntsman and hawk and hound and tree started out grotesquely. Meg would have fled, but could not get away. Still retaining her presence of mind, she did not scream, but waited for the first opportunity to escape.
Miss Linisfarne asked Meg to hold the candle, and, still clutching the girl’s wrist, unlocked a door on the right. When it opened a breath of chill air swept out. Pushing Meg in, she followed, and they found themselves in a chamber of no great size, with one barred window. Against the wall rested a picture in its gold frame.
“See, see! Sir Alurde’s portrait! Your lover’s portrait! My wedding present,” cried Miss Linisfarne, snatching the candle from the girl. “Look, child—look at him now!”
Meg uttered a cry of alarm! The picture was cut to pieces in the most savage manner. She turned to fly, but Miss Linisfarne was before her. With a jeering laugh she hurried out, and shut the door. Meg heard the key turn in the lock, and then the voice of the woman, whom she now knew was mad.
“Stay there! Stay there! You wretch! You robber! You took him from me! Stay there in the dark, and look at his face now. Starve! starve and die in your cell! Shout, no one will hear you—no one will know! Ha, ha! How like you my wedding present?”
As Miss Linisfarne uttered these words she waved the candle wildly. It touched the tapestry, and in a moment the moth-eaten stuff, dry as tinder, was in a blaze. She saluted the fire with cries of joy. Meg smelt the burning, and saw the vivid line of light under the door of her cell. With a cry of alarm she hurried to the window and found it barred, while outside in the passage the flames roared, and Miss Linisfarne shrieked like the mad woman she was.
True to his resolve, Dan left his camp after supper in order to assure himself that Meg had arrived safely at home. As he mounted the hill he heard confused shouts, and, on looking upward, beheld an unusual glow in the sky. Filled with fresh alarm at these portents he increased his pace, and was soon on the summit of the ridge overlooking Farbis. To his astonishment he saw that the Court was in flames, and that the shouts were those of the villagers hastening to extinguish the conflagration. Only for a moment did he survey the unaccustomed scene, then ran down to the village at top speed.
“Great heavens!” he thought, “can that woman have killed Meg, and set fire to the place to conceal her crime?”
This seemed to be the true explanation to his agitated mind, the more so as, in racing down the street, he ran against a man wringing his hands, and crying aloud. It was Dr. Merle.
“Where is Meg? Is she safe?” demanded Dan, pausing a moment in his headlong career.
“No, no!” wailed Merle, “she went to see Miss Linisfarne. She is at—”
But Dan waited to hear no more. His worst forebodings appeared likely to be realized; and, frantic with dread at the danger of Meg, he sped on to the Court. He arrived in time to see the iron gates wrenched off their hinges by the stalwart arms of the villagers, who afterwards poured in through the gate. Carried along with the disorderly crowd up the avenue, Dan found himself at the elbow of the vicar.
“Jarner, Jarner! Meg!”
“What of her?” asked the parson, with anxiety. “Is she not with her father?”
“No! She went to the Court to see Miss Linisfarne.”
“Great heavens!” muttered Jarner, in alarm. “Can it be that—”
“For God’s sake, Jarner, don’t suppose anything so horrible,” burst out Dan; “it is impossible. Meg must be safe.”
“Safe in that!” said Jarner, pointing to the Court, at the back of which red flames shot upward to the stars amid black clouds of smoke.
“If harm comes to her I’ll kill Miss Linisfarne.”
“I hope she has not killed herself! We must rescue both, if we can.”
“But the fire—the fire! Cannot it be put out?” cried Dan, as they mounted the terrace.
“There is no water.”
Dan clenched his fists! It was horrible to think of the danger in which Meg was placed. The few servants were gathered together on the terrace, and the front door was wide open. In answer to the vicar’s questions they said that both Miss Linisfarne and Meg were in the house. The housekeeper had seen them go towards the west wing. It was that part of the house that was on fire.
“I must save her,” said Dan, shaking himself free from Jarner’s grasp; “let me go.”
He ran into the hall, and up the stairs. As he did so a huge form shot past him, and he saw to his astonishment that it was Tim. The face of the gipsy was quite pale, and he raced up the stairs with such rapidity as even to distance Dan.
“Tim, Tim! Where is the west wing?”
“I know, rye! Follow me!”
The front of the house was quite safe, as the fire was confined to the west wing, and they rapidly threaded a maze of corridors. Tim seemed to know the way, and at length paused before a door. He tried to open it, but found it locked.
“This leads to the west wing. They are in there. Help me to break it down.”
Without answer Dan threw himself against the door. Strong as he was it would not yield to his efforts. They could hear the crackling of the flames, and trembled to think of the two women shut up in that furnace. Tim put his shoulder to the door, and Dan assisted with all his strength. It cracked and yielded and fell back. With a shout they prepared to rush in, but were driven back by the fierce flames. The whole interior of the corridor was in fire, and the smoke rolled out in blinding clouds. Tim dropped on his hands and knees, and crept forward. Dan heard him shout.
“What is it, Tim?”
“Here is one! Miss Linisfarne—Laura!”
In the excitement of the moment Dan gave no attention to the utterance of Miss Linisfarne’s Christian name by the gipsy. He thought of nothing but the girl he loved.
“Meg! Meg! Where is Meg?”
“I don’t know,” said Tim, who appeared at that instant, bearing in his arms the inanimate body of Miss Linisfarne. “Let us take this one to a place of safety.”
“But Meg! Meg will be burnt to death!” cried Dan, and made a frantic rush forward. The flames sent him back, and he was almost stifled by the smoke. It was utterly impossible to pass that barrier of flame in search of Meg.
At right angles to where he stood there was a window. As the passage was full of smoke, Dan darted to this, and smashed the glass. As the cold air rushed in he thought he heard a cry. Without considering what he was doing, he clambered out on to the sill of the window, and saw the whole length of the west wing stretching towards the hill. The flames flared upward through the roof, but the side was as yet untouched by the fire. It was as bright as day, and, clinging to the ivy some distance along, Dan saw the figure of a woman.
“Meg! Meg!” he shouted. “Hold on! I am here!”
“Dan, save me!”
She had succeeded in wrenching the bars from the window of her cell, and had managed with difficulty to thrust herself through the aperture. The effort had exhausted her strength, and now she was clinging helplessly to the thick ivy which matted the walls. Overjoyed at the sight of her still alive, Dan shouted encouragement, and reflected how he could assist her. There was no time for him to go round by the front door, as the flames were already shooting from some of the windows of the west wing, and at any moment the fire might scorch Meg.
He looked down and saw that an oak grew so close to the house that a good spring would land him in its topmost branches, which were but a little below the level of the window on the sill of which he stood. If he failed he would fall a considerable distance on to a flagged pavement, and run the risk of breaking his neck. In his cooler moments he might have hesitated to tempt such a catastrophe, but the thought of Meg’s peril steeled his nerves. Marking a great bough which would bear his weight, he sprang from the window, and fortunately landed among the branches of the tree. His head struck against the bough, and he was almost stunned, but retained sufficient presence of mind to grasp at whatever came within his reach.
After that effort all seemed like a dream. He heard Meg calling him wildly, and, in some way, managed to scramble down the tree, though, when he found himself on the ground, he could not explain how he got there. His head felt giddy, and his clothes were torn to ribbons in the fall. But there was no time to be lost, and he ran along the flagged path to where he saw Meg, high above, clinging to the ivy. The parasite formed a kind of natural ladder, but he dreaded to climb it, lest he should grow giddy and fall. In desperation he looked around for some means whereby to clear his head. A pool of stagnant water was at hand, and, without a moment’s hesitation, he dipped his head therein. The shock of the cold water restored him to his normal condition, and the next moment he was scrambling up the ivy. The whole time, from his spring into the oak and his clambering up the side of the house, was not more than five minutes.
He was just in time, for Meg’s strength was rapidly giving way, and hardly had he placed his disengaged arm round her waist than she leaned half fainting on his breast with her whole weight. This threw the strain on his right arm, and the ivy was almost torn from his grasp. Fortunately, he had his feet firmly planted in the network roots of the parasite, and so managed to hold firmly. Still, the position was one of great peril, as the least false step would precipitate both himself and his burden into the depths below.
“Meg, Meg!” he whispered vehemently, “clasp your arms round my neck and hang on. I must have both hands free.”
Mechanically she did as she was told, as the momentary fainting-fit had passed, and she now comprehended what was to be done. Free to use both hands, Dan gripped the ivy firmly, planted his feet carefully, and, with the girl clinging to his neck, managed with great difficulty to make the descent. They reached the ground in safety.
“Thank God!” said Meg, looking up at the blazing ruin from which she had so miraculously escaped. “My own darling, how brave you are! But Miss Linisfarne?”
“Tim saved her. Let us go round to the terrace and show them that you are alive. How did you get into the west wing, Meg?”
“Miss Linisfarne took me there, under the pretext that she wanted to show me the portrait of Sir Alurde. Oh, Dan, she has cut it to pieces because it resembled you!”
“I know she hates me, Meg. I was fearful lest she should do you harm, and it seems that my presentiment was right.”
“She shut me up in the room, Dan, and then set fire to the place. The window was barred, and I thought I was lost. Fortunately the bars were old and rusty, so I was able to wrench them out and free myself. But had you not come, I should have fallen.”
“My brave girl! There are not many who would have had such presence of mind, Meg. Miss Linisfarne is a fiend. Can you walk now?”
“Yes; I am much stronger. Let us go at once.”
They hastened as quickly as possible round to the terrace, and found Miss Linisfarne in the centre of the crowd. She was terribly burnt, but conscious. The villagers welcomed Dan and Meg with cheers of delight, and Jarner hastened forward. Before he could reach Meg, however, Tim had passed him. With an ejaculation of thankfulness, he seized the astonished girl in his arms and kissed her.
“Tim!” cried Dan, thoroughly enraged; “what right have you to—”
“The right of a father,” said Tim, in a deep voice. “I am the husband of yonder wretched woman, who tried to kill her own child.”
Both Dan and Meg looked at Jarner for an explanation. They were taken by surprise at Tim’s speech, and could say nothing.
“It is true,” said Jarner, taking Meg tenderly in his arms. “I did not know it till now. Nor did Miss Linisfarne dream that you were her child, Meg. Had she known, this terrible catastrophe would not have taken place.”
“Is she my mother?” faltered Meg; “but my father—”
“I am your father,” said Tim, quietly. “Dr. Merle is only your guardian. It is a long story, Meg. I acted for the best, but it has turned out ill.”
“Meg, my child!” cried a feeble voice.
“Come,” said Dan, leading the girl towards the dying woman; “you must see and forgive your mother.”
Miss Linisfarne was dying. Her body was terribly burnt, and she was lying on the terrace wrapped in a blanket. The villagers were all in the house saving the furniture, so only those intimately concerned were present. The shock had driven the insanity out of Miss Linisfarne’s brain, and she was now quite rational. As Meg knelt beside her, she put out a feeble hand.
“Forgive!” she said faintly; “I was mad! I knew nothing, my child.”
“Oh, mother, mother! why did you not tell me I was your child?”
“She did not know,” said Tim, who was holding a cup of wine to the lips of the woman he claimed as his wife. “I did not think her worthy to know the truth, and so she never learned that it was her own daughter she brought up.”
“Cruel! cruel!” murmured Miss Linisfarne. “Would nothing less than twenty years of misery satiate your revenge?”
“No,” replied her husband, curtly.
“Do not reproach her,” said Jarner, in a gentle tone. “Do you not see she is dying? I have sent for Dr. Merle. Here he comes!”
“Merle!” said Tim, with a frown. “No, not Merle, but Mallard.”
The feeble little doctor ran up to the group, and fell on his knees beside Miss Linisfarne. She looked at him in amazement.
“Oh, Laura, Laura! After all these years!”
“Poor Richard!” murmured Miss Linisfarne. “I treated you badly; but I have been punished. You can forgive me now?”
“I do! I do!—freely.”
“I forgive you, mother, and I love you,” said Meg, kissing her with tears.
As she did so Miss Linisfarne’s head fell back. She was dead.
This is the last letter you will receive from the dell wherein I have camped so long. The days of my roving are over. No longer shall I trudge beside Simon through the long summer days, nor camp under the stars, nor read Lavengro by the red light of an outdoor fire. Shortly will you behold me as a sober, married man, and as such I must conform to the prejudices of civilization. The consulate of Plancus is at an end, my friend, and the days of Bohemian wanderings are over. I would regret them even more than I do, were not the present happier than the past.
Great events have taken place since I last advised you of my adventures. I shall never disbelieve in palmistry again, nor shall I, even in the smallest degree, doubt the power of Romany hags to forecast the future. If you remember, I was doubtful in my last letter as to the chances of further fulfilment of Mother Jericho’s prediction. I am a sceptic no longer, for, in the most marvellous way, every word of it has come true. What think you of that? “There are more things in heaven or earth—” But the quotation is threadbare. I shall not insult your understanding by repeating the whole.
I now know all the mysteries, Jack, which have so long puzzled me. I was right in supposing there was a connection between Tim, Miss Linisfarne, and Dr. Merle. There is a very close connection which concerns Meg and concerns me. What it is you shall now hear, so prepare your sceptical mind for tales of wonder.
In my last epistle I told you how Miss Linisfarne stood aloof when her plans were overturned, and shut herself up in the Court. Meg—tender-hearted girl as she is—regretted that one to whom she owed much should be thus estranged and lonely. She consulted both Mr. Jarner and myself as to the advisability of seeking a reconciliation with Miss Linisfarne, and we—suspecting no danger—approved of her resolution. Would that we had forbidden the visit, for it led to nothing but evil! Yet it fulfilled the prophecy, so I suppose was to be. Certainly it was out of our powers to advert the decrees of Fate. Fire and flame—false father—false mother! There is the riddle, Jack, and here is the interpretation thereof.
Meg went to the Court one evening, at six o’clock, and saw Miss Linisfarne, who professed herself glad to be reconciled. Nay, more, she pretended to approve of the marriage, and said she would give Meg a wedding present. This was none other than the portrait of my ancestor, Sir Alurde, whom I so greatly resemble. It was very kind of her offering it to Meg, especially as it belonged to me! But, mark you, the cunning of the woman! She asserted that she had seen me in the interval, and had asked and obtained my permission to give the portrait. This statement, I need hardly tell you, was pure invention.
Naturally enough Meg believed her story, and went with her to the west wing, where Miss Linisfarne had removed the picture. It was in a small room, slashed to pieces, and in that room the mad woman—for she was quite mad—locked up my poor darling, and set fire to the place. Whether it was by accident or design, I do not know; but she soon had the Court in a blaze. It is now completely gutted, and only the bare walls stand to show where the house once stood. The home of my ancestors is gone, but I care nothing for that. Meg is safe, and for that alone I am thankful.
Tinker Tim was at the fire, and saved Miss Linisfarne. I rescued Meg by the merest accident. The brave girl wrenched out the bars of her prison-house, and climbed out. I saw her hanging on to the ivy which overgrows this part of the house, and by some miracle—for I cannot tell you how I did it—I extricated her from the perilous situation. We went to see after Miss Linisfarne, and then received a surprise.
I know you won’t believe it, Jack, for I was sceptical myself, until convinced by hearing the story in detail. Meg is not the daughter of Dr. Merle. You must remember how I wondered that so fine a nature, so beautiful a girl, could have for parent so contemptible a specimen of humanity. My wonder was legitimate. She is not Merle’s daughter, but the child of Miss Linisfarne and Tinker Tim. There, sir, what do you think of that for a startling piece of news? I am so astonished myself that as yet I can hardly believe it. Nevertheless, it is perfectly true. Here is the story. More wonderful than any yet invented by fiction-mongers.
Some twenty-five, or it may be more, years ago Tinker Tim—whose other name, by the way, is Lovel—was a handsome young gipsy. He was more ambitious than the rest of his race, and wished to be great. A strange thing for a Romany, for, as a rule, they are content with their humble condition and wandering life. Tim, however, left the tents of his people and went among the Gorgios. He had plenty of money left to him by his father, who was a noted prizefighter. He told no one that he was a gipsy, and, owing to his foreign looks, was supposed to be some Eastern prince. This is not to be wondered at, for, as you know, the Romany originally came from India many hundred years ago. Desiring to learn what pleasure there was in the life of a Gorgio, Tim encouraged the idea, and by a lavish use of his money managed to see a good deal of society. All this sounds extraordinary, but I believe it to be true. Though only a vagabond gipsy, Tim is a splendid looking man, and has a remarkably keen brain. I can quite well imagine that he could pass himself off for an Eastern prince, and gull society for at least a season. This is what occurred. He was much made of by the fashionable world, and while the lion of the season met with Miss Linisfarne.
She was then just twenty years of ago, and a very beautiful woman. She fell in love with Tim and he with her. I do not know the details of the courtship, but it ended in a secret marriage performed by a Church of England clergyman. Tim would not be married publicly by a parson, as it would destroy his pretensions as an Eastern prince, and Miss Linisfarne would not be married in any other way. They compromised by a secret marriage, and Tim met his wife on the Continent, where they lived for some time. No one, not even the parents of Miss Linisfarne, knew of the marriage, and as she was abroad with a companion, secretly bribed to keep the marriage quiet, no harm was suspected. Then Tim, in a moment of weakness, told his wife that he was no prince, but only a wandering gipsy. To his surprise her love turned to hate. She considered that she had been tricked, as it had been her desire when the marriage was avowed to appear in London as a princess. She was an ambitious woman, and the discovery of the truth made her wrathful. Both she and her husband had fiery tempers, so in the end they parted. Miss Linisfarne returned to her people, and Tim was left abroad, vowing to revenge himself on his hardhearted wife. You can guess what that revenge was.
About this time Merle, or rather Mallard, came into the story. He was a wealthy young doctor, madly in love with Miss Linisfarne. She, finding she was about to become a mother, accepted his addresses in order to conceal the disgrace. To her parents she confessed the truth, and they, deeming the ceremony with Tim no true marriage, as he was a gipsy, urged on the match with Mallard. All would have gone well had it taken place at once; but Mallard was called away to Italy, where his father was dying, and when he returned Miss Linisfarne had disappeared. The parents refused to tell this lover where she was; but, having unlimited money at his command, he had no difficulty in finding her hiding place. There he learned the truth, for he found she had given birth to a female child. She cynically avowed her connection with Tim, and drove Mallard mad for the time being. He had not at any time a strong brain, and the shock proved too much for him, so for three years he was in a lunatic asylum. When Miss Linisfarne returned to London, and told her parents all, they were so enraged at her folly and disgrace, that they exiled her to Farbis Court, where she spent the remainder of her miserable life. Much as I condemn her conduct, I must confess to a feeling of pity for the agony she endured all those years in the lonely house. If she sinned, she was bitterly punished.
When Mallard came out of the asylum he was a complete wreck, and did not mend matters by taking to opium. He wandered about the world for two years, but found no peace. Then he formed a design of withdrawing from a world which had no further charms for him, since his life had been ruined by a woman. Yet he still loved Miss Linisfarne, and went down to the village where he had learned the truth. He found Miss Linisfarne had gone away, but the child, now five years of age, was still there, and with the child a gipsy who asserted he was the father. This of course was Tim, and with his strong will he soon obtained an ascendency over the weak mind of Mallard. Tim wished to force the mother to bring up her child and train it according to her duty, yet all the time remain in ignorance of the truth. He heard that Miss Linisfarne had gone to Farbis Court, and therefore proposed to Mallard that, as he wished to retire from the world, he also should go there under an assumed name, and adopt Meg—so the child was named—as his daughter. At first Mallard refused, but in the end yielded. The use of opium had already rendered him a tool in the hands of the gipsy, and when Meg was five years of age she was taken down to Farbis with her adopted father.
Their life there you know. Dr. Merle, as he called himself, gave way entirely to his vice of laudanum drinking, and Meg was brought up by the vicar and Miss Linisfarne. Tim, hovering constantly about Farbis, was delighted at the success of his plot. The mother was fulfilling her maternal duties towards the child she had forsaken, and was quite ignorant of the relationship existing between them. Merle never saw her all the time he lived at Farbis, as Tim forbade him to seek her, fearful lest she should learn or guess the truth. Can you imagine a more dramatic situation, Jack? A husband, a wife, a lover, and a child. The husband forcing the lover to father his child, the mother bringing up her own daughter, and training her according to her duty, yet all the while remaining in ignorance of the relationship. Name any novel that can match that, my friend.
How Meg grew up beautiful and strong, how she was educated by her unsuspecting mother and the vicar, I have told you in my former letters. Tim watched over her all the time. What his plans were with regard to his wife I know not. She thought him dead; but he doubtless intended to undeceive her on that point. I suppose he would have confessed his plot some time, and let the mother have her daughter. But the treachery of Miss Linisfarne led to an untimely explanation, and Tim has not told me what he intended to have done had the catastrophe not taken place. It seems horrible that the mother should have plotted the death of her daughter; but, as I said before, she did not know the truth, and, as she is dead, it were kindness to say no more about her.
When Meg was nearly twenty years of age, Tim consulted with Merle as to getting her married. He was proud of his daughter, and wished her to make a good match. Merle could offer no suggestion, as there was no suitor worthy of the girl in the district. Then Chance intervened, and sent Tim the very husband he wanted for his daughter. At this point I come into the story, as you can guess.
It appears that a gipsy was getting a caravan built at the shop where mine was being constructed. He heard that I intended to take to the life of the roads for a time, and knowing that I owned Farbis, where Tim’s tribe was encamped—for these vagrants learn things in the most wonderful way—told the Tinker of my proposed expedition. Tim at once selected me as a husband for Meg, thinking truly that if he could only inveigle me to Farbis the girl’s beauty would do the rest. Hence his plot. It was he who instructed the gipsies to urge me to visit Farbis, and when I was on my way thither, stationed Mother Jericho in the pine wood to prophesy about Joy coming up through the Gates of Dawn. The visit you know! I met Meg at the Gates of Dawn—fell in love with her, and hope to marry her. Tim’s plot has been completely successful. Now you can understand Mother Jericho’s talk, and Tim’s hints, and Merle’s fears. The gipsies knew I was Lord Ardleigh all the time, and, though I did not know it, I was surrounded on all sides by people anxious for me to marry Meg. Mother Jericho’s prophecy was but the wishes of Tim put into words.
Yet not all of it! I can understand the prediction as to my meeting Meg—as to the false father and the false mother—that was all designed. But how did the old hag know that Miss Linisfarne would fall in love with me, and what reason had she to foretell fire and flame? No one thought the wretched woman would set fire to the Court. That part of the prophecy I cannot understand, therefore I must admit I have a certain belief in palmistry.
Well, Jack, the end has come. I know all, and, knowing all, am quite content to marry Meg, half-gipsy though she be. Miss Linisfarne is dead, as I told you, so she will be no trouble. Tim prefers his life of tent and road, as his one experiment among the Gorgios ended so disastrously. Yet I hope to see a good deal of him in the future, for though he is but a gipsy, I tell you he is a father-in-law to be proud of.
By Jarner’s advice, and with Tim’s consent, this strange story is to be told to no one but yourself. There would be no use in publishing it abroad, and Meg will marry me as the daughter of Dr. Merle. That wretched creature will not live long, I fear, as he is in so shattered a condition. He has left all his money to Meg, which is only what she deserves. It will be settled on herself when the marriage takes place. Strange to say, he is nearly as wealthy as I am.
I am coming up to town to see my lawyers, and make settlements on my future wife. Then I will ask you to come here with me in the spring, and see me married to Meg by Parson Jarner. You shall be best man, and Tim shall give the bride away. That office he reserves to himself, and absolutely refuses to give it to Dr. Merle.
Miss Linisfarne is buried, and the Court is destroyed. I shall not rebuild it, but devote any surplus moneys I have to the use of the parish. I mean to raise the villagers out of their present wretched condition, to repair the church and augment the income of Parson Jarner. He, dear old man, refuses to leave Farbis, as he has grown to love the place and the people. So he shall be my almoner, and when my wife and I weary of being Lord and Lady Ardleigh, we shall come down to Farbis to be Dan and Meg. Tim and Parson Jarner and Mother Jericho will be there to welcome us, and we will revive the old Bohemian days which are now at an end.
The old lady is in high glee at the fulfilment of her prophecy, as she well may be. It has given me a pearl of womanhood for my wife. I loved Meg from the first moment I saw her coming up through the Gates of Dawn. All our troubles are, I hope, over, sorrow has departed, and joy has come. I do not think I can do better than end this letter with a verse of Meg’s song. It can stand in lieu of a signature.
“The red light flames in the eastern skies,
The dew lies heavy on lea and lawn,
Grief with her anguish of midnight flies,
And Joy comes up through the Gates of Dawn.”
LONDON: PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS. LIMITED,
STAMFORD STREET AND CHARING CROSS.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia